As we celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe, an “immovable feast” on December 12, I love to reread “Flower and Song,” a lovely reflection by David Denny, my friend and hermit-neighbor. This is excerpted from our Season of Glad Songs: A Christmas Anthology, available from CreateSpace or Amazon. Happy Feast!
Guadalupe, the New Eve
The first time I heard the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I was twenty-one, considering monastic life, and about to be confirmed a Roman Catholic. A beloved Sedona, Arizona neighbor, Mary Brodie, was bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis, and a friend and I visited her at her little home up nearby Jack’s Canyon. Mary had an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and when I told her I didn’t know the story, she launched in. Mary told stories beautifully. I remember being taken by the tale, but this Marian stuff was foreign to me.
The more I learned about the sixteenth-century apparition to the Indian Juan Diego in Mexico, the more I quietly fell in love with the details. Two dozen years later, I had become a monk and my community decided to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe with greater solemnity. This translated into an outdoor procession with our donkey Lupe!
Mother of the New Creation
In preparation for the feast, I read Virgil Elizondo’s Guadalupe: Mother of the New Creation and was struck by the creatively subversive, revolutionary aspect of the Virgin’s appearance. In case you don’t know the tale, here it is: In 1531, Juan Diego, a native living near Mexico City, left home before dawn on his way to church. He heard some extraordinary music, like beautiful birdsong, coming from above him on the hill of Tepeyac. Then he heard himself addressed. He climbed the hill and met a beautiful lady who asked him to deliver a message to the bishop: she wanted the bishop to build her a “hermitage,” a chapel, on this hill sacred to the natives. Juan reluctantly went to the bishop’s palace, where he was peremptorily dismissed.
Juan returned to the lady, reported his failure and suggested she find a better messenger. She sent him back. After a thorough interview, the bishop dismissed Juan a second time, insisting he needed a sign that would confirm the truth of Juan’s outlandish claim.
Dejected, Juan returned home to find his uncle gravely ill. So the next day, before dawn, he headed to Mexico City to get a priest. He skirted the hill to avoid the lady. But she saw and intercepted him. She assured him that his uncle was already cured and told him to climb the hill and pick the flowers he would find there. It was December 12. He found the impossible Castilian flowers, filled his mantle, or tilma, with them, and brought them to the lady, who sent him on to the palace.
There he met a cold reception and waited a long time. Finally the bishop saw him. Juan knelt and told his tale. He opened his tilma and out poured the flowers. But they were nothing compared to the lightning bolt that struck the bishop: the emptied tilma bore a radiant image of the beautiful lady. The bishop was converted.
An Indigenous Mother
Elizondo’s commentary places this event in its historical context and illuminates details that cannot be recounted here, heightening the tale’s drama. He describes some of the Aztec background of the story. Although the Spaniards brought the Christian faith, the lady made it clear that the indigenous Mexicans were the Spaniards’ equals. Elizondo sees the Virgin’s message as a mandate for missionaries that would not be fully embraced by the Church until recently, with teachings renouncing evangelization through destruction of native cultures. The timing for this intervention was uncanny. The conquest of Mexico began in 1519. By 1531, the native population was devastated by warfare, disease, and persecution.
The Virgin’s features and dress were Aztec, not Spanish. This was unprecedented. Elizondo describes the Aztec hieroglyphic symbols on Mary’s robe; illiterate natives may have been able to “read” the message encoded there: a new age, with an infant sun, had dawned. No one knows why the tilma has not disintegrated after four and a half centuries, and no one knows how the haunting image was made. Even if and when natural causes are discovered to account for these anomalies, how can we account for the miracle of the message, the flower and song of its truth?
I love the earthiness of Christian mysticism and the warm humanity of Jesus. Rather than “intervening” in a “godless” situation, it seems more accurate to me that God is already present, working from within the creation God loves, and especially through human instruments. But when innocent people are oppressed, God sometimes seems to erupt in a dramatic way, perhaps especially when it requires challenging authorities for the sake of the poor, the underdogs and outcasts. Aztec sages claimed that truth is always clothed in flor y canto, flower and song. The heavenly music and the presence of flowers at the crest of Tepeyac in December are not only, and perhaps not mainly, miracles, but rather a confirmation that what was revealed there was true.
In our celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, we decked our donkey Lupe with paper flowers, and we attached a New Mexican santo carving of the Virgin on Lupe’s packsaddle. Beginning at our garage, we processed about a quarter of a mile down our gravel road to Lupe’s corral. When the feast fell on a Sunday, we invited neighbor children to join us. They strewed dried flower petals in front of Lupe as we sang our way to the corral. Once there, we started a campfire and read the Guadalupe story aloud.
When we reached the climactic moment when Juan Diego opens his flower-filled tilma, we unfolded a brightly colored Mexican blanket that hung on the corral fence. Paper and felt roses tumbled out on the ground, revealing a poster of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is a child-like ceremony, more like a grammar school skit than a grand liturgical drama. But in the chilly December light, as the sun set over the San Juan Mountains, I felt profound gratitude. Sometimes we lingered fireside with hot chocolate or adjourned to the dining room for a meal of huevos rancheros.
Just because you don’t have a donkey doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate this feast! And in the midst of reveling, it is good to remember the source of our joy. The New World, says Elizondo, gave birth to a new race, the mestizos, once shunned by both European and native cultures. Our Lady of Guadalupe proclaims herself their mother, our mother. She is the New World’s New Eve, mother of a diverse human ecology that rejects the monocultures of European imperialist hubris and Aztec human sacrifice, subordinating them to flor y canto, the liberating truth and celebration of God’s love here and now.