December 12 is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the defender of the unborn and Patroness of the Americas. I have a faint memory of being taught about her in Catholic School, but it wasn’t until I did an internship in Southern California that I really learned about her. I’d say Mary played a key role in the Christianization of Latin America when she appeared in 1531 to a random native, Juan Diego, which led to the famous image to appear on his poncho (or “tilma”), to be venerated by millions of pilgrims over the next 500 years.
Exactly two weeks ago today I made a pilgrimage down to Mexico City and went to walk on those same sacred grounds as Juan Diego. I venerated the very image generated 500 years old. Upon arrival at the Basilica doors I was full of anticipation to see the image. Perhaps my expectations were too high, as I almost expected to see an image so miraculous that it would contain colours I had never seen before. In fact, the anticipation is answered quickly as the tilma is elevated above the sanctuary and visible as soon as you enter the doorways (see my photo above).
However, 500 years after the fact, the tilma is not a slam dunk for belief. Keeping in mind the context in which the image was generated, it’s a genius piece which could only have been divinely formed. Lacking that context, one sees a nice work of man. The image on the tilma was enough to convince church officials to build a church at Guadalupe, but doesn’t meet the expectations of the skeptic, who you could argue would not be convinced by any evidence. Its smallness, its quietness – on its surface it is an image unlike any other artwork marvellously displayed in the basilica’s many neighbouring chapels. Yet the scientific findings are fascinating, from the fact that the tilma has not decayed since, to its survival of a bomb blast in the early 20th century, to microscopic findings that her eyes seem to reflect the images of Juan Diego in conversation with the bishop!
Then again the message of Guadalupe and the message of Advent are the same, through subtle signs and symbols, belief took root. (I’ll write more about this in my Advent entry in the coming week). History in the land I was in could not have unfolded the way it had based on a hoax – a message of truth and life illuminated a dead culture whose worship involved sacrifice of living things, including other human beings. The “Villa Guadalupe” is now comprised on a number of chapels, including a massive new basilica, and an old basilica, which was built on a bad foundation but somehow still stands, despite its scary lean. And each significant meeting of Our Lady and Juan Diego is marked as a reminder that God works in the real world, through His most humble instruments, for great results to His Greater Glory.
Staring out on the pagan plain
Pyramids Ghosts of human pain
Our Lady’s mantle covers that blame
So the fervour lives on in Love not Shame