Every Advent I recall December 2003 when I found myself swept along in the tide of pilgrims advancing toward one of the world’s most visited holy sites. The crowds were drawn by the gravity of a story that dates back to 1531 and a little hill in Mexico.
By 1531, colonization and Christianization of the “New World” were in their early stages of devastation. Conversion and violent conquest had progressed rapidly since the colonizers first brought Christ nearly 40 years earlier.
Then Mary his mother appeared. She appeared on her own humble, gentle, dark-skinned terms. No ships, no guns, no flags to plant. She came with roses and words of mercy.
On the hill called Tepeyac, Mary appeared to a poor widower with no children. Juan Diego was his Spanish name, although he spoke Nahuatl, his mother tongue.
As he passed the hill one day, Diego heard other-worldly birds singing and a voice call to him. On the rocky crest of the hill, Mary spoke softly to Diego in his native tongue. She declared her mission as one of compassion and protection. She asked him to instruct the bishop to build a chapel for her on the hill.
Of course, we children of the scientific era are programmed to dismiss such accounts as empirical impossibility. If we do this we miss the spiritual inspiration millions have drawn from a story that speaks to a place beyond scientific constructs, to truths greater than facts.
The bishop brushed the peasant off. So Diego went back up the hill and suggested Mary send someone else. But Mary had chosen him. So he returned to the bishop a second time. Meeting the same scepticism, Diego vowed to return with a sign.
Back on the hill, Mary sent him to pick roses among the stony crags, even though it was mid-December, far past rose season. Diego returned to the bishop with a glorious bouquet of rosas de Castilla under his cloak, which was made of cactus cloth. When Diego opened his cloak to reveal the miraculous roses to the bishop, an image of Mary, as he had seen her, appeared on the inside of his garment.
With this image on a peasant's cloak, new possibilities for the history of the New World appeared.
A chapel was built for Our Lady of Guadalupe, as she identified herself, on the hill, which is now surrounded by the sprawl of Mexico City. Later, a basilica was built; in it hangs the 482-year-old cactus cloth cloak with its remarkable image.
In the image—which is nearly ubiquitous in much of Latin America—Mary's skin is a shade more indigenous than European. The stars on her cloak, the crescent moon under her feet and other parts of the image would have found immediate symbolic resonance with the indigenous people of that time, as they do now.
Every Dec. 12, Catholics and indigenous people celebrate side by side within Guadalupe's enduring embrace at Tepeyac. An estimated 10 million people visit annually.
While some Catholic historians cast Mary’s appearance as a boost to the church's conversion campaign—a reported nine million indigenous people had joined the church by 1541—her image could hardly be more different than that of the conquistadors who are immortalized and immoralized in bronze statues throughout the Americas.
She stands reverent, quiet, dignified. Hers is a gentle power. I believe she came not to accelerate colonial history, but to redeem it. Her agenda had more to do with indigenous protection than Catholic expansionism. Her message, I think, was less a call to embrace Judeo-Christianity than a comforting whisper to a people caught between Aztec and European societies, each with their own human sacrifices.
The mighty men of history have left their mark in the officialdom of text books and place names. Mary has found her place in the hearts of commoners in countries where history has been against them since Columbus first arrived with his sword and Bible.
For me, the story of Guadalupe beautifully acknowledges the Euro-Christian reality and affirms the traditional indigenous reality. It creates a holy healing space in which they can come together peacefully.
Mexican indigenous people celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe outside the Basilica in Mexico City.