In an interesting “which came first” scenario, this week we celebrate two inter-related feast days. Later this week we will celebrate the popular feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which goes hand in hand with the one we celebrate today—the feast of Saint Juan Diego.
We celebrate Juan Diego as a bearer of Mary’s apparition and request for a church. We celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe because of Juan Diego’s willingness to speak on her behalf.
Saint Juan Diego’s story began on a rural hillside outside of Mexico City in 1531 where the Virgin Mary appeared to him and requested that he speak to the Bishop about building a church in her honor on Tepeyec Hill where they were speaking. Juan Diego was an indigenous man of no particular means or connection, and honored her request and proposed the idea to the bishop.
The bishop was skeptical of the encounter and asked that he return with a sign. Meanwhile, Juan Diego’s uncle fell ill and Juan Diego nearly missed his second appointment with the bishop. Instead, the Virgin reassured Juan Diego that his uncle would live. She instructed him to collect the roses (growing unseasonably) on the hill and bring them to the bishop as a sign. Juan Diego did as he was told. When he presented the flowers to the bishop, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe became visible inside of his tilma (cloak).
With the appearance of this sign, a church was constructed in her honor.
A Legacy of Love and Our Lady
Today the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (in Mexico City) is one of the most frequently visited pilgrimage sites in the world. Juan Diego’s tilma bearing Mary’s image can still be viewed inside of the Basilica, though its rough and poor fabric likely should have disintegrated long ago. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patroness of Mexico, which is overwhelmingly Catholic, as well as the Americas. Many believe that this apparition endeared the Mexican people to the Mother of God and to the Church in a special way.
There are two aspects of this story that I especially love:
- Mary chooses to appear to a simple indigenous man without connections or means, to receive her message.
- As it happens with Marian apparitions, Mary appears as an indigenous woman herself; connecting immediately to those with whom she speaks.
Saint Juan Diego’s Witness
If there is any downside to being a part of a Church with such a rich and vibrant cloud of witnesses that have gone before us, it might be that it can be intimidating to find our own circumstances particularly inspiring. And this is why I love Saint Juan Diego: he is obscure, and in his obscurity he ushers in and has fostered tremendous devotion to Jesus and His Mother. Mary could have chosen someone with influence or means who could have built the Basilica themselves. But, lost would have been the image in the tilma and the ongoing exchange between Juan Diego and Our Lady, and the message that the lives of seemingly obscure folks do not escape the significant and loving gazes of Jesus and Mary.
The Virgin of Guadalupe and People on the Margins
In 1531 there would have been a wide array of artistic renderings of Jesus and Mary, but likely none that reflected the experience and appearance of all who would look upon them. Mary’s distinct appearance at Tepeyac echoed familiarity to the hearts of Juan Diego and a Mexican people ready to receive it. Our Lady’s radiant appearance communicated a relationship with the divine that could be both holy and familiar and that God has always had particular love for those who are marginalized.
Apparitions like this one have communicated to people all throughout time and geography that they are seen and loved by God and His Mother in their most specific circumstances. Mary has appeared to men, women, and children all over the world. Her invitations offer opportunities and instruction to those who hear her to grow closer to her Son. Our Lady of Fatima, Lourdes, Knock, and Guadalupe are well-known apparitions, but only a few of the many places Mary has made herself available to the people of the world.
As we journey through Advent during a very unique season of our own history, we do so in good company. Saint Juan Diego offers a timely reminder that even in our obscurity we can offer our very selves to the greater glory of God. Our Lady of Guadalupe assures us of the possibility to be employed in heavenly errands.
Saint Juan Diego, pray for us!
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