What can the image of our lady of Guadalupe teach us about apostolate?
The impact surrounding the Guadalupe miracle holds an unprecedented place upon historical, cultural and religious scales, in which an expression of modest, everyday clarity conceals a message of cosmic importance. As more recent historical studies have shown, the details of this divine synthesis are always ready to take on a new splendor, and for this reason I would like to underline the unspoken candor with which the message of Salvation can be unmistakably presented when it is incultured for its audience.
Most Catholics have probably heard something about Her story, or at least recognize the image. Not all of us, however, are familiar with the text documenting the conversations that were had between Saint Juan Diego and the Heavenly Lady. Even fewer are aware of the context in which these things took place; for the native civilization presumed an oncoming apocalypse. Becoming more atune to these details, I began to read more, and although it may come as a surprise, I was most astounded not by “how” the image was unexplainably instilled upon Juan Diego’s tilma, but by something else. Certainly, the details around the handiwork of its creator are enough to baffle scientists and artists, as well as the devout. But what tipped my scales regards “what” the image contains, as an “inscribed” message.
[pullquote]Precisely, it was this message that was able to convert, literally “upon first sight”, dozens of millions of natives, who had never seen nor heard of Jesus Christ; drawing them to walk hundreds of miles to receive Baptism and profess their faith in this Savior of the world. But wait, aren’t we talking about a simple image of Mary? How were they referred to faith in someone that is not even in the image? This is precisely my point. For not only was the Woman depicted indigenously (and ingeniously) as the bearer of a Divine Message (or Word) who was her little Person, she indicated that the Savior within her was to be received through new rituals, whose administrators resulted to be the Catholic missionary priests. But unaware of all this at the time, the missionaries remained without any possible explanation for the unprecedented numbers who sought for them daily, as if guided by some invisible and unyielding recommendation, to beg for the waters of Baptism.[/pullquote]
Paradoxically, only months before the apparitions, things were reaching a crisis state after nearly a decade of feeble and unfruitful efforts for evangelization. The Aztec were deeply instilled in their own religious worldview, and stubbornly held on to it. They were encouraged by the fulfilling of their calendar’s prophecies which had adverted not only the arrival of this strange new race of men, but announced an eminent end to the universe. This oncoming catastrophe was aggravated (and confirmed) by the Spanish prohibition of their “barbaric” sacrificial cult, needed to “maintain the cosmic balance”. The crisis was even manifest among mutinous Spanish factions, who themselves were falling into chaos. The gravity of the violence that was brewing led Archbishop Zumarrga to declare, “If God does not act, we will be forced to abandon our missions and return to Europe”! However, as history attests, these seemingly irreconcilable, antagonistic positions of apocalyptic proportions suddenly and dramatically changed.
Although the ensuing victory of the Christian Faith in Aztec Mexico is not attributable to any human genius, the question remains, “What could have possibly converted an entire civilization’s worldview?”
The answer has been, for centuries, contained upon Juan Diego’s tilma.
What is there? We are not speaking about hidden text. Nor am I interested here in divulging into astronomical or microscopical studies, even though these may also have suggested an intriguing depth of information that is there to be found. The communicative force of the message is contained within the very forms and colors of the image itself, because these express symbols that evoke a series of indigenous codices. Its design takes complete advantage of the curiously lyrical and cordial character of the indigenous Náhuatl tongue, full of colorful imagery and analogies, to so blend the subtle nuances of native life and culture, and so reach a work of synthetic precision that the greatest poets in history would contend to equal. These elements were furthermore marvelously woven into the already existing nuances of Catholic tradition, specifically proceeding from Spain.
Together with these is the name “Guadalupe”, which the Virgin insisted upon as her title. While this title is itself curiously suggestive of the indigenous images on her dress, its roots come from an Andalucían river (Guadalpejo: river of the mirror of light), and comes to mean either, “hidden river” or “river of love” as derived from Arabic, in correspondence to a ‘hidden’ Marian devotion dating from the 8th century invasion of the Moors. This devotion was then carried by Christopher Columbus to name one of the first islands in the New World discovered in 1493. Although experts doubt that the name originated from Náhuatl, a similar sounding term, “coatlallope” means, “the one who tramples upon the serpent”. In fact, upon her appearances in 1531, there was no clear reason for her to receive that name, and ironically, Spanish attempts to replace it with the more indigenous “Tonantzin” (mother) ended up becoming an annex, Mother Guadalupe.
[pullquote]Who could have had such a complete and artistically expressive knowledge of both cultures at that time, to furthermore be capable of explaining, in an appealing way, the dogmas of Catholic faith to the Aztec mindset? And amidst the mutual upheaval in which all prospects of reconciliation on a human level were at the point of being abandoned? The list is empty. And yet it was the will of the Mother that prevailed over every human reason, indicating the Hope beyond hope. For the Reconciler was in arrival, revealing that, perhaps, in Salvation History, the New World was reserved its own Epiphany. Mary, it seems, was again here entrusted to present the Emmanuel (“God with us”) to pagan seekers of the Truth.[/pullquote]
The natives who came to glimpse this “Divine Lady”, under the care of the foreigners, discovered that there was actually nothing unfamiliar about her at all. Every subtle (and mysterious) analogy needed to get the point across was already contained within her eloquent lines. But what exactly did she have to say? ((For a fuller explanation of these elements please see: Our Lady of Guadalupe: Mother of the Civilization of Love, by Carl Anderson, Eduardo Chavez and Our Lady of Guadalupe and Saint Juan Diego: The Historical Evidence, Eduardo Chavez)) Pardon the excessive brevity of this summary:
- She is clothed with the heavens the earth and the rays of the sun; her message comes from the One who holds the universe in balance. Her message is a Divine Word.
- She is pregnant with One who is the lifeblood of humanity, the wisdom of old, who has placed his roots into our flesh, and sends out a river of living water to renew the face of the earth [This is indicated by the forms contained in the flower figures upon her dress, which beyond being literally an exclusively local flora, coincide in their forms as a synthesis of native codices that produce the above symbolism].
- She is in an active prayer position, not only by European standards, but holds in her hands a flower and is in dance step, according to the native ritual. Her active prayer is their consolation, for through her interceding prayer, balance is restored to the cosmos.
- She is standing upon the moon, whose European form already existed, but whose native significance, and specifically because it is a black moon, means literally, “mexico” [the ‘navel’ of the world]: the place, their place, where this event of encounter with the One whom she bears is to occur. The message is personalized, not only to their geographical existential as ‘a place on earth’, but as a place within them, as Jesus himself declared, ‘the Kingdom of God is within you’.
- Her countenance is mestizo, as if she were born of both native and Spanish parents. This comes as an indication and consequence of the announced reconciliation brought by her little Person, the One whom she bears, signified by the four-petal flower upon her womb. The two conflicting worlds are to become one, by way of the blood of her offspring. He is to become the new sacrifice, replacing all others.
- The day and hour on which she appeared was precisely the indicated apocalypse of the Aztec calendar; the so-called “15 straw”, which meant, “something new begins”. She appeared at dawn, meaning what she brings is that something new, for the sun was not supposed to rise. She is thus the bearer of the dawning Son of eternal life, the One whose water goes out to vivify.
- Juan Diego was told by her that her image must remain in the hands of the Bishop, ensuring that all would understand that this living water that she promised, as the new ritual, comes through the Church and its ministers. For this reason, all sought to receive the waters of Baptism with great conviction.
Their own history and hopes for the future stood convicted in the colors and forms of this Divine Lady. And so, somehow their entire livelihood was found summed up in her, as if she suddenly stepped into history to say, “Am I not here, I, who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection?” (Nican Mopohua 119). What in history has perhaps been literally translated into layman’s terms as “I am with mexico”, is in reality an indigenous appeal whose theology implicitly sings, “behold the Emmanuel comes to save”. We mustn’t forget that her message is a living one, and brings about a completely incultured evangelization. Her affectionate words to Juan Diego, it seems, are thus echoed in every fiber of the tilma, effectively communicating with her humble, and silent presence, in the warm compassion of her subtle beauty, the eminent arrival of her Son the Savior, our water of life, our river of love, our light in despair, our reconciliation with God. As far as I see it, we still have much to learn from her, not only because her love continues to overflow as a “hidden river” towards us, but because Guadalupe is a true lesson, to show us how the Incarnation must become the very reason and method of every apostolic effort.
© 2015 – Benjamin Oldani para el Centro de Estudios Católicos – CEC