"Sister. That was a mic-drop class."
That's about as high of a compliment as it gets from middle schoolers. It was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and we spent the class going over the story hidden in the tilma. Since the majority of my students were Hispanic, they were very familiar with the story of the apparition of Our Lady to Saint Juan Diego and faithfully participated in Las Mananitas. Many had an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in their homes and lockers, and it was that image we spent the class discussing.
Mary Tells a Story Then
There were more than twenty languages and more than fifty dialects spoken in Mexico; however, when Mary left her image on the tilma, she left it in a language she knew everyone at the time would understand: symbols and cultural imagery.
On the miraculous tilma, Mary is shown as a young native woman—not Spanish or European. Her dress—with jasmine, a fur-trimmed neck and cuffs, and a gold border on her cape—would have told the Aztec people that this woman was an Aztec princess or queen. Yet the greenish-blue color of the mantle would have spoken to the people of divinity.
The angel holding the hem of her dress would have also told them she came from Heaven. So simply from her dress, they would have gathered that this woman was a Queen from Heaven.
The Woman from Revelation
The stars surrounding Mary on the tilma would have alerted the people of a beginning of a new civilization, and the winter solstice of 1531 is displayed in the arrangement of stars. The winter solstice symbolized the day of the sun’s birth to the Aztec people.
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars. // Revelation 12:1
We know this refers to Mary, but for the Aztec people, they would come to that knowledge through the image. The woman stands in front of the sun, signifying she is greater than the sun god, who was the greatest among the native gods.
She stands on the moon, again showing she is greater than the god of night. The crescent moon was also a symbol of the Aztec serpent god, and Our Lady's stance upon it shows she will crush its head (see Genesis 3:15). This had even deeper meaning for the Aztec people, as the stone serpent demanded human sacrifice, and they would have recognized that this woman had power over human sacrifice. So where she was standing told the people this queen from heaven was more powerful than all of their gods.
The black band around Mary's waist alerted the Aztec people that the woman was pregnant. Over her womb was a jasmine flower in the shape of an Indian cross, which proclaimed in rich symbolism that the baby in her womb is Divine and the center of the universe. Mary’s hands are folded in prayer with her head inclined toward her womb, showing reverence to the one in her womb, not bringing glory to herself. She shows the people that she is not God, but belongs to and is worshiping God, the God who is in her womb and Who must then be Man.
Mary’s fingers are three together, and one farther apart, hinting at the Trinity, three in one.
The Aztec people would have connected this God-Man to the brooch at her neck. It has a black cross, which they would have recognized as the Cross Cortez had on his ships which brought the Catholic Faith to Mexico.
So through the image on the tilma, the people would know that this queen from Heaven, mightier than all of their gods, worshipped the Man-God in her womb, and so must they.
Mary Tells a Story Today
Not only did Mary speak to the Aztec people then, but through science, she is still speaking to us today.
The tilma is made of cactus fiber and would have lasted about 15 years. Yet, it is still here, almost 500 years later. It has faced smoke from fires and candles, water from downpours, candle wax, and oils from fingers touching it. The image shows no signs of decay, cracking, or deterioration. It even survived a bomb in 1921. The brass cross next to the tilma was bent completely and the altar rail was heavily damaged, but the tilma remained untouched!
Scientists studying the tilma using infrared photography found no sketching lines or outlines to suggest an artist painted it. Nor can they find any paintbrush strokes! The biophysicist who studied it said it appeared to have been produced in a single moment. Scientists who have studied the pigments have no explanation for them. There were no synthetic paints in the 1500s, and the pigments do not come from any natural source.
One of the most striking things that speak to us today but would not have been able to be seen due to the lack of technology during the time of the Aztecs are Our Lady’s eyes. An engineer magnified her eyes over 2,500 times. In her eyes can be seen the reflection of the Bishop and several other onlookers. Probably even more amazing is that Mary’s eyes follow the reflections and curves of what our eyes normally do when we gaze upon something.
Our Lady Draws Us Then and Now to Her Son
In 1541, ten years after the apparition, it is said nine million people had converted to Catholicism- practically the whole nation of Mexico. This massive religious and cultural conversion brought an end to the human sacrifice that was part of the Aztec culture. She is working today to bring about the conversion of our culture today, and this is why she is a patroness for the pro-life movement.
Every year when I taught this lesson on December 12th, I remained just as awed as my students. Our Lady’s loves us enough to speak to us in a language we can understand.
Saint Louis de Montfort said:
She is more mother than queen.
Our Lady of Guadalupe shows us she is mighty as both mother and queen and is willing to go to great lengths to speak to our hearts.
May Our Lady of Guadalupe work this miracle of deeper conversion in our hearts this Advent.