Today is December 12. It’s the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. This feast is the reason I’ve stayed in the city of Chihuahua for four days, although, in the words of one local, the city is “not very touristical.”
In case you’re not familiar with this extremely Catholic festival or its significance to Mexico, let me tell you the story.
On December 9, 1531, only a few years after the brutal Spanish conquest, Juan Diego, an indigenous peasant–and a convert– was walking on a hill near Mexico City. A young girl appeared on the hillside and spoke to him in his native language (Nahuatl). She told him to go to the bishop and ask that a church be built in her honor on that hill.
Juan Diego hurried to the archbishop, Juan de Zumarraga, and made the request. I can’t quite envision the encounter between the noble Spanish archbishop and the humble indigenous peasant, but the archbishop told Juan Diego to ask his apparition for a sign.
After a few days and some intervening events (the healing of Juan Diego’s uncle, so the story goes), he again saw the girl on the hillside. The bishop wants a sign, does he?, said the girl. Gather those roses blooming at the top of the hill, and take them to him.
Sure enough, Castilian roses were blooming in the middle of December at the top of the barren hill of Tepeyac.
Juan wrapped the roses in his tilma, a coarsely woven cloak as common then as is the rebozo worn by indigenous women now, and trundled obediently back to the bishop.
But when he opened the cloak to show the bishop, not only did the roses tumble out, but an arresting image of the young girl was imprinted on the tilma.
This was not your sanctimonious Anglo representation. This was an image of a young, native girl, eyes downcast, with symbols meaningful to native people–the color of her mantle represented divinity; an image below her sash is an Aztec symbol, called nahui-ollin, of the cosmos.
Almost immediately, La Virgen de Guadalupe, as she was called, became powerfully attractive to the recently conquered and oppressed indigenous people. This was their mother-protectress. She had allied herself with them. She spoke their lanuage.
Today, 500 years later, the image of the Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. I’ve seen it painted on rocks in the most remote and uninhabited places imaginable. She has come to be known as the Patroness of the Americas, and has been the symbol of Mexican revolutionaries well into the 20th Century.
Today, the tilma is displayed in a huge basilica in Mexico City, and it is the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world. It has not only survived the depredations of time, which experts agree is highly unusual for such a vulnerable material, but it has also survived an attack with ammonia in 1791 and a bomb in 1951.
I’ve visited the shrine twice–once in the original cathedral, which is now literally sinking into the earth, and more recently in the new basilica, on a day in which, oddly, almost no one was there. Both times were affecting in a way I can’t explain.
So, I looked forward to celebrating the feast in Mexico, and I decided to stay in the state capital to do so. For three days, there have been fairly low-key parades through the streets with lots of police to stop traffic. Each day, dancers are led by drummers. They dress in renditions of native dress with lots of sequins and sparkly stuff. There are always one or more bad guys dressed in scary costumes. Following the dancers, a bunch of people process along saying the rosary.
Early this morning, I was woken by the church bells at the nearby cathedral. (Bells on Mexican churches don’t peal like, well, bells. They clunk.) The 7am mass was full. The next mass began at 8. It was also full. It’s not yet noon, and the most enthusiastic parade yet has just passed by.
It’s not easy to hold fast in the deepest recesses of your soul to all the fantastical things I promise to believe in my Catholic Creed. How are these beliefs different from the fantastical things anyone else believes, including the crazy stuff theoretical physicists are fooling around with these days? (Multiverses, wormholes, string theories.)
Even though I’ve personally experienced the presence of God. Even though inexplicable things have happened to me–still, an unwavering, calm, accepting depth of faith that’s not frenzied or superficial or apologetic isn’t easy. For me, the tangible and peculiarly beautiful image on that 500-year-old cloak helps. It just does.