Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is a huge fiesta at the Basilica outside Mexico City where hundreds of thousands of the faithful gather to celebrate this day each year. This feast carries deep religious and cultural significance for Catholicism and Catholic theology.
First, the background is important. After Spanish colonial rule had reduced the native people of Mexico to powerlessness, this apparition took place. At Tepeyac, a barrio near Mexico City, on December 9, 1531, Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego, a humble indio. Mary appeared dressed like an Aztec princess, one of the native peoples conquered by the Spanish. Our Lady of Guadalupe’s image is a radical departure from the images of Mary brought by the Spanish missionaries.
Second, Our Lady spoke to Juan Diego in his native language, not Spanish. She told Juan Diego to go to the bishop of Mexico City, a Franciscan named Juan de Zumarraga who had gained mastery of the native language. Juan Diego delivered the message that the bishop was to build a church on the place where Our Lady appeared at the barrio of Tepeyac. Skeptical, the bishop instructed Juan Diego to ask for a sign from the Lady he claimed to have seen which would prove that she really was the Mother of God.
Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego again and gave him roses which he carried in his cloak to Bishop Zumarraga. When he came to the bishop and opened his cloak to present the roses, the bishop was surprised to see an image of Our Lady imprinted on the cloak. He fell to his knees in belief.
Third, this religious vision bolstered the human dignity of the oppressed during a time of colonial rule. Ultimately, the image miraculously imprinted on the cloak of Juan Diego became a source of inspiration for all the native peoples of Mexico. The attached photo of the cloak shows an image of Mary in which Our Lady appears as an Aztec. This image was quite a contrast to the fair-skinned images of Mary with European features that were common in the mission churches.
Fourth, that Mary appeared to this poor man—not the rich, famous and privileged—is a reminder of the great reversal found in the Gospel of Luke. God chose Mary of Nazareth to be the mother of our redeemer. Over the centuries of Christian history, many symbols have been baptized by the Church, none perhaps as powerful and inspiring as the image on the cloak of Juan Diego. The whole narrative serves as a poignant reminder that God loves the poor and the oppressed.
As a theology student and as a theology professor in the Philippines, I liked to use a variety of images of Jesus—as an Oriental guru, an African, a Jew and as a Native American—to remind myself and my students that the incarnation spans all races and cultures. When the Word of God became flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary, God truly shared our humanity.
As an ethicist I argue that our first moral obligation is to be a good human being, because Jesus was. Then I also like to point out that because of the incarnation we need to remember that what is offensive or harmful to human beings is offensive to God. When I see the current protesters with their slogan, “People not Profits,” I believe that today’s culture of individualistic materialism needs that prophetic warning.
Aren’t we, the people of God, struggling to overcome our European captivity? Aren’t we still learning how to accept God’s special love for the poor, humble people of this world? The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe carries a powerful message for us today.
Credit: Guadalupe image
Credit: Juan Diego Image