Saturday, December 12, 2015

Castilian Rose on a Mexican Hill

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Since my devotion to Mary is… tenuous… I honestly don’t pay much attention to this day. But there is something beautiful in the story and the flowers and the titles. I saw this title used for the first time yesterday, and it just struck me as almost fairytale-like: the Virgin who Danced on the Moon.

Legend says that in 1531, Mary appeared to Mexican peasant Juan Diego several times. She appeared on a hill, a sacred spot in the local culture, and spoke to him in his native tongue. When Juan Diego told the bishop of Mexico City, the bishop asked for proof. Juan Diego’s uncle was ill, and on Dec. 11, he was busy taking care of his uncle, and failed to meet Mary on the hill as he had agreed. Ashamed for missing her, he tried to go around the hill a different way, but she appeared again and asked him, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” She told him that his uncle was healed. She then instructed him to take flowers from the hill, lay them in his cloak, and take them to the bishop. When Juan Diego presented his cloak to the bishop, the flowers fell to the ground, revealing the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

While Our Lady of Guadalupe is huge in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries, it is said that during her apparitions to Juan Diego, they spoke the native Aztec language, Nahuati. This has caused scholars to doubt that her name is Guadalupe, but rather a Nahuati word that the Spanish interpreted as Guadalupe. A Spanish scholar in the seventeenth century proposed tecuatlanopeuh, which translates as “she whose origins were in the rocky summit,” or tecuantlaxopeuh, “she who banishes those who devoured us.” Both make sense when attributed to Mary; she appeared to Juan Diego on a hill and she is a saintly figure. Others offered up the term coatlaxopeuh, “the one who crushes the serpent.” This too, can clearly relate to Mary, who is often depicted crushing the serpent who tempted Eve. Furthermore, the Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl is a feathered serpent. At this point in Mexican history, the Spanish were destroying Aztec shrines and building Christian churches on sacred spots. The Christian faith was conquering the local traditions. 

However, Juan Diego would have been familiar with Spanish, and all the early records record the name of Guadalupe, not an Aztec name. The name Guadalupe was already associated with Mary at this point—back in Spain. In Extremadura, Castile, a monastery holds a shrine with a cedar sculpture of Mary holding the Christ Child. The legend of this Lady is that the statue was carved by Luke the Evangelist, handed down until it reached Pope Gregory I when he was bishop of Seville. When Seville was conquered by the Moors in 712, some priests fled to Extremadura and buried the statue in order to save it. In the 1300s, Mary appeared to a local rancher and asked him to have priests dig up a particular piece of land, where they found the statue. The chapel built around the statue attributed the Spanish conquest of the Moors to Mary’s intercession. 

Later, Isabel and Ferdinand signed the documents authorizing Columbus’ 1492 voyage at the monastery there. Several of the conquistadors to Mexico were from Extremadura, including Hernan Cortes, who overthrew the Aztec empire in 1521. Going back to the story of Juan Diego: when he was told to gather flowers on the hill, this was a hill that was usually barren. Yet on that December day, it was full of Castilian roses.

So in many ways, it seems like the Lady of Guadalupe (in Mexico) is a Spanish legend updated for the New World. The Spanish defeated the Moors, and now they will defeat the Aztecs. The serpent god is crushed under the foot of the Mother of God. The Lady of Guadalupe is a political statement as much as a religious one. Does that diminish her? To me, it always feels a little tainted when my faith brushes too close to politics. But life isn’t divided into nicely compartmentalized boxes. God doesn’t fit into a box anyway. I want to condemn the atrocities committed by European colonizers, and I want to praise the growth of Christianity in the New World. I hesitate to make statements on the accuracy of religious apparitions. I leave that to the Church officials who have the skill and tools for making discernment on that front. What is clear to me is that the story is more complex than it appears. It is not just a Mexican peasant with a personal experience. It’s the crumbling of empires, the clash of civilizations, buried treasure, miracle roses, and a virgin who danced on the moon.

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