In the Catholic and Orthodox Church, we celebrate Mary throughout the year. We do so because of her position as Mother of Jesus and her purity. Three special days to remember Mary occur over the next few weeks—
- The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) which honors Mary’s conception as a pure vessel in anticipation of bearing Jesus within her;
- The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12) that commemorates Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego; and
- The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1) when we honor Mary as the Theotokos, God-Bearer, Mother of God.
The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is fascinating intertwining cultures and expanding across centuries right through to the present. Countless miracles have been attested to devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, including one incredible personal miracle I myself received in 2008.
Following is an excerpt about this apparition from my best selling book, Grieving with Mary
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In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great gave a black Madonna statue to Archbishop Leandro of Seville, Spain. When the Arabs invaded the country in 711, the statue was buried in the mountains of Asturias along the Guadalupe River. (Burying sacred items was a common practice to prevent their desecration and theft.) The legend is that five centuries later, Mary appeared to a man named Gil Codero and instructed him to dig for the buried sculpture. Codero retrieved the statue and placed it in a shrine on that same spot. The Spanish people showed honor to Our Lady of Guadalupe, Spain, by journeying to the shrine to pray.
Several centuries later, on December 9, 1531, across the ocean on the hills of Tepeyac, Mexico, a young peasant named Juan Deigo was drawn to a bright light. There Juan found within a cloud a beautiful woman dressed in vivid colors. The woman spoke to him in his native Aztec tongue of Nahuatl. She said she was the Ever-Virgin, Holy Mary, Mother of the God of Truth. The Lady instructed Juan to go to Bishop Zumarraga of Mexico and tell him to build a chapel on the hill. However, it took Juan three attempts and a miracle before he convinced the bishop that this message indeed came from Mary.
In the midst of winter, Mary provided what Juan thought was a sign for the bishop. It consisted of an exceptional bouquet of flowers, including Castilian roses, that he gathered from snow-covered hills per Mary’s instructions. Mary arranged the flowers herself and wrapped them in Juan’s own modest cloak, known as a tilma. However, it was a much more impressive sign than the beautiful flowers that Mary gave the bishop. Upon opening the cloak to present the bouquet, the exact image of Our Lady as revealed to Juan was printed on his tilma. The shocked bishop humbly dropped to his knees in tears.
The apparition was important to the indigenous people as well because it struck some significant correlations between the natives and their pagan gods:
- Mary was shown in bright, bold colors standing in the rays of the sun on a crescent moon. The indigenous people considered the goddess Coatlicue the mother of the sun and the moon.
- Mary told Juan that her name in his native tongue was Tlecuauhtlacupeuh, which means “the one who crushes the serpent.” One of the native gods, Quetzalcoatl, was a feathered serpent to which people sacrificed women and children.
- The natives soon learned that while the serpent god required human sacrifice, Mary’s son, Jesus, sacrificed himself for all people.
Not only did Mary speak to the people in their language, she reached out to Juan as his friend and protector. She told Juan not to let anything discourage or depress him. She said he should not fear any illness or pain, because she was his mother. She promised to protect him in the folds of her mantle in the crossing of her arms. After the apparitions millions were drawn to this special woman and her message, thereby converting to Christianity.
The Spaniards in Mexico were touched by the miracle, as well. Tlecuauhtlacupeuh, the name Mary used to address herself in the language of Nahuatl, sounded like the word “Guadalupe” to the Spaniards. The Lady even wore stars on her cloak as found on the ancient statue of Guadalupe, so the Spaniards believed she was their own Lady of their native land of Guadalupe, Spain.
In addition, Mary’s relation with Juan forced the Spaniards to reconsider their perceptions of the indigenous people, whom they considered inferior. Mary honored the native culture with her presence. Consequently, the Spaniards had to recognize and respect them equally as children of God.
Scientists made several studies on the tilma to verify its authenticity. The scientific consensus consistently found that the icon truly is a heavenly creation. There are no brush strokes. Nor are the rich colors the result of any paint of dye known to humankind (with the exception of some flourishes added later).
The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe illustrates Mary’s love for all people. However, she is most present to the poor, sad, sick, and lonely because that is where she is most needed. She is with us in our grief and human pain. Mary’s motherly concern is that everyone is treated justly and strives to live a life in a way that is pleasing to God. Her message always is to pray more and live peacefully.
Today, Juan’s tilma is displayed in the world’s busies Marian shrine, Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica, located in Mexico City. Millions of pilgrims travel worldwide each year to see the magnificent piece firsthand. From a moving walkway one a few feet below, pilgrims can see the image of Mary exactly as Juan saw her nearly five hundred years ago. The reality of the privileged opportunity to brush so closely to this self-portrait of our Blessed Mother is evident in the stream of awe-struck faces of the pilgrims beneath it. The experience is life-changing for the many people who claim they receive personal miracles in its presence.
After nearly five centuries, it is extraordinary that the tilma exists today unharmed and without deterioration of the cloth or colors. Made from the fibers of a cactus plant, it typically would disintegrate within twenty years. Also, a bomb exploded beneath it in 1921 ripping apart the marble in the sanctuary but without causing any damage to the tilma or its glass cover. The tilma’s incredible survival alone is an inspiration to patrons praying before it.