Thursday December 12 is general election day in Britain, but it is also, by coincidence (or perhaps providence), the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Our Blessed Lady appeared to St Juan Diego, an indigenous inhabitant of New Spain, as it then was, on the morning of December 9, 1531, at the Hill of Tepeyac, then a rustic spot but now swallowed up by the urban sprawl of Mexico City. Speaking to him in his native Nahuatl language, she asked for a church to be built there in her honour.
Juan Diego took her request to the Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, who did not believe him.
Our Lady appeared again to Juan Diego and told him to keep on asking, which he did. The archbishop asked for a sign, which the Blessed Virgin said she would grant.
However, by Monday, December 11, the day of the sign, Juan Diego’s uncle, Juan Bernardino, had fallen sick so Juan Diego was obliged to attend to him. In the very early hours of Tuesday, December 12, with Juan Bernardino’s condition having deteriorated overnight, Juan Diego set out to fetch a priest to give him the Last Rites.
In order to avoid being delayed by the Virgin and ashamed at having failed to meet her on the Monday as agreed, Juan Diego chose another route around the Hill of Tepeyac; but the Virgin intercepted him and asked where he was going. Juan Diego explained what had happened and the Virgin gently chided him for not having recourse to her. Her words, now inscribed over the entrance to the Basilica of Guadalupe, were: “No estoy yo aquí que soy tu Madre?” (Am I not here, I who am your Mother?)
She assured him that Juan Bernardino had now recovered and she told him to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill, which was normally barren, especially in December. Juan followed her instructions and he found Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, blooming there. The Virgin arranged the flowers in Juan’s tilma, or cloak, and when Juan Diego opened his cloak before Archbishop de Zumárraga later that day, as the flowers fell to the floor the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe was revealed imprinted on the fabric of the tilma.
The tilma bears no sign of being painted, and the image it carries has defied scientific explanation. It is now enshrined above the altar of the modern basilica at the foot of Tepeyac Hill, the third most popular place of pilgrimage on earth.
The conquistadors had overthrown the Aztec Empire in 1521, a mere decade before Our Lady’s appearance. Thanks to the efforts of various friars, Dominican and Franciscan, Christianisation was rapid. In this, Our Lady of Guadalupe played an immense role. Catholicism was never a foreign import in Mexico, for it was identified with the Virgin, and she was unquestionably Mexican in features and in dress.
Some scholars have tried to identify the Virgin of Guadalupe with an Aztec deity, and to posit that Tepeyac was a place of particular religious significance before the Spanish arrived. But none of these efforts have come up with hard evidence of continuity between pagan cult and Catholic worship. Rather than seeing Guadalupe as a sign of syncretism (the adoption of pagan elements into Christianity), it should be seen as a place of inculturation, that is, the expression of timeless Christian truths in a language that the Aztecs could understand.
Moreover, suspicion of syncretism misses the simple point that the Virgin of Guadalupe was (and remains) an expression of a counter-cultural faith. In a land of previously terrifying and bloodthirsty gods, she embodied maternal gentleness and love. In a land scarred by human sacrifice, she was a figure who promised life. For the Virgin of Guadalupe, alone of all images of Mary, as befits her appearing in December, is pregnant, wearing the maternity dress of an Aztec princess.
The Mexican revolt that secured the country’s independence had as its rallying cry ‘‘¡Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe!’’ Since then the Virgin has been acclaimed as Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas, among other honours; more recently she has become the patroness of the pro-life movement.
Just recently, the Holy Father made the feast of Our Lady of Loreto universal in the Church, whereas previously it had been merely local. This is good news; Loreto is a lovely shrine, and it has several connections with England (at Walsingham) and Scotland. In Mexico, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is almost as important as Christmas Day. Elsewhere, it is merely an optional memorial, but there is still much that we can do to celebrate it.
December 12 is the ideal date for a parish party in which people bring along their national dish, given that Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of all indigenous peoples, and most parishes these days have a large body of devout Catholics born overseas. There is no better way of getting to know of other countries than through their cuisines.
In addition, a Guadalupe party in the parish is to be preferred to the Christmas parties in early Advent that we are all getting too used to. Guadalupe teaches us an important message: about Mary as evangeliser, about Mary as loving Mother, about the correct role of inculturation (as opposed to syncretism), and above all, the importance and sanctity of the unborn child.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a moral theologian and contributing editor of the Catholic Herald