I taught for ten years in an all girls school in downtown Toronto, perhaps the best years of my career in teaching. The students were predominantly from Italian or Portugese families, demonstrating the demographic shift in the Catholic population in the late 20th century. As we neared Dec 12 each year I would dedicate a few classes to the subject of “Mary, the mother of Jesus”. I would begin the mini-unit asking the students to write on the blackboard all the things they “knew” about Mary. They would fill the front blackboards with a list of the things they knew about Mary, including the obvious – that she was the mother of Jesus. But there were also the other interesting “facts” like “her favorite colour is blue”, and “she kills snakes”. Then I would have the students distribute the classroom bibles and have them search the gospels for the passages that would verify these facts. Of course they couldn’t, which opened a window into discussing the scriptural references to Mary and also their devotions. Usually half of the students wore Fatima medals, but few of them even knew the story of Fatima. I would conclude the unit on the class nearest December 12 and I would bring in to class a large authentic replica of the Guadalupe image, bearing the signature of the Abbott of Guadalupe verifying that the image was exact. I would explain the beauty of the image and the significance of the story for the Mexican faithful. I tried to show the students the beautiful catechesis hidden inside the story.
I am still fascinated by this “miracle” – I have seen the tilma from a distance in the old Basilica in Mexico City. I have read about the complex artistry on a fabric so course that you could see through it, as it was a fabric made of cactus fibers and typical of the clothing of the very poor. I may not be a believer but there is a power to the story that is not satisfied with a simple explanation. This is a reflection I wrote a few years ago for the CORPUS journal.
Guadalupe Replaces Coatlicue, But Is She The Mother Of The Nazarene?
I have always had a fondness for the story of Guadalupe. I met my wife, Anne Marie, in Mexico in the summer of 1969 when we were both university students, and at that time we viewed the sacred image in the old Basilica which was sinking into the lake bed of the ancient city of Tenochitlan. Later as a missionary in South America I studied the importance of Marian shines such as Luján in Argentina, Caacupé in Paraguay, and Copacabana in Bolivia which replaced mother earth goddess figures in pre-conquest cultures. Coatlicue is the Aztec goddess of life and death, a virgin maiden who was miraculously impregnated and gave birth to Quetzalcoatl and numerous other deities. She was not a fashion statement with her necklace of human hearts and a skirt of snakes.
“Coa” in the language of Náhuatl, means “snake”. A more benevolent form of the feminine goddess named Tonantzin was the earth and fertility
goddess known as “Our Lady Mother”. Her sacred site was the hill of Tepeyec, on which a temple had been built. When the Spanish conquistador Cortes approached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), the emperor Moctezuma II met the Spaniards at the temple of Tonantzin. The story goes that the invaders were most ungracious towards the Aztec welcoming committee by knocking over the statue of the goddess and replacing her with a Madonna statue from Europe. The Aztec empire was at this time in crisis and not known for its benevolence, even to its own people. Worse was to come with the conquest.
An Aztec convert who took the name Juan Diego was walking by the hill of Tepeyec one day in 1531. Even to a convert this was still a sacred site, connected to the deity of the Moon, and the place where the cosmic kingdom had begun to unravel. Not much is known about Cuauhtlatoatzin (which means “the talking eagle”) as he was known before his baptism, and even a former Abbott of the Basilica of Guadalupe, Guillermo Schulenburg, in 1996 suggested that he is not entirely a “historical” figure. The first written mention of Juan Diego is found in the “Nican Nopohua” document, almost a century after the events. That minor detail did not prevent John Paul II from adding Juan Diego to the official chorus of the Roman (Catholic) pantheon in 2002.
As Juan Diego walked by Tepeyec, he was called by a young brownskinned woman who called herself “Coatlaxopeuh” (1), “xopeuh” meaning to crush serpents (Gen3:15). Literally then she addressed herself as “who crushes the serpent” and a close pronunciation of this name would be “quatlasupe”, which was similar in sound to Guadalupe, an Iberian Madonna who is sometimes depicted as standing on the head of a bull between its horns. (By coincidence the first voyage of Columbus was authorized by Queen Isabel at the Friary of “Santa Maria de Guadalupe” in Spain.) Coatlaxopeuh who is known ever since as Guadalupe sent Juan Diego to the bishop asking that a shrine (temple) be built for her where the previous temple to Tonantzin once stood. To get the bishop on side a number of miracles occurred.
The greatest of these miracles is the imprint of the image of Coatlaxopeuh, the young brown skinned woman who spoke in Náhuatl, on the tilma of Juan Diego. The tilma, used as a cloak, was woven of course maguey cactus fiber. The image is reputed to be a mixture of different artistic mediums, including oils and pastels. It was the perfect image for it equally appealed to both conquerors and conquered.
The Spaniards saw in it a confirmation of their Marian devotions coupled to their mandate to discover and subjugate the Americas.They recognized their Virgin Madonna standing between the horns of a bull. They identified with the nobility of renaissance style of dress worn by the Virgin. She is even protected by an angel who looks like a figure from a Vatican fresco. The conquered “indios” saw something else. They identified with the goddess who was so powerful that she stood blocking the rays of the sun and standing on the moon. (Think of the pyramids of Teotihuacán dedicated to two of the most powerful Aztec deities – the sun and the moon.) Yet so powerful, she is still so gentle that her feet are cushioned by an angel holding a pillow on which she stands. She wears a dress adorned with flowers of the region and she is wearing a waist sash indicating that she is pregnant. She is brown and mestizo – the first Mexican. She is what Mexico will become- a blend of two cultures and two civilizations.
Father Virgilio Elizondo suggests that Guadalupe is something of the third manifestation of Eve. The first Eve gave birth to humanity but also lost the struggle with the serpent. The new Eve, Mary of Nazareth, gave birth to the new era of salvation. “Now Mary of Tepeyec would be the mother of the ultimate humanity which started not with the conquest but with the Incarnation of Christ in America”. (2)
Unless we choose to be blind to the best of modern biblical scholarship, we know that what we know about the historical Jesus is minimal. Even the gospels have adorned the historical Jesus with theological baggage, some of which is no longer useful or relevant. What we know about his mother is even less- if nothing at all. Scholars such as J. Dominic Crossan (3) help us to understand the context of a prophetic figure that would come out of Nazareth, the fringe of the Jewish kingdom of the north. We know of the insecurity faced by a young maiden as the Roman armies continually passed through Galilee, through Nazareth, on their way to suppress yet another Jewish rebellion. We are told that Mary was found to be unmarried and with child, a dangerous situation for women of the Middle East then as it is now. Anything else is myth, conjecture, and theology. The Christmas nativity scene owes more to St. Francis than it does to the gospels.
The first decade of the conquest of the Americas seemed intent on the annihilation of the “indios”, the native peoples, by sword, plague and slavery. Did the appearance of Guadalupe save the first world people or did it ensure their domination? Did the “Virgin Morena” (brown virgin) cause the conquerors to recognize the dignity of their subjugated Indians or did it stifle a revolt of the suffering poor by giving religious legitimacy to the conquest?
There is no Mexico today without Guadalupe. The struggle for independence under Miguel Hidalgo was fought under the slogan “Death to the Spaniards and long live the Virgin of Guadalupe”. Her banner was carried into battle, not only by Hidalgo but later by Morales and Zapata. In current times, the image of Guadalupe is integral to the struggle of the Zapatista revolution. Not all Mexicans are Christian but all are Guadalupanos.
The struggle of the Mexican American to the north commonly unfurls the
banner of Guadalupe in its struggle for identity, dignity, and human rights. César Chávez and Dolores Huerta founded the U.F.W. under the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe who was according to Huerta “a symbol of faith, hope and leadership”. (4)
Guadalupe is an icon for women who seek strength, dignity and control of their own lives. Then perhaps it doesn’t really matter if Guadalupe is the same as the Mary of Nazareth, about whom we know so little. She is definitely not Coatlicue, but does seem a lot like Tonantzin. If there was a Mary of Nazareth for whom the Magnificat resonates in such potential for turning upside down the world order, then Guadalupe is the new world manifestation of that potential. “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).
(this reflection was published in “The Journal”, publication of Corpus Canada 2006 No.4 p.7-8 http://corpuscanada.org )