Juan Diego is hurrying to his ongoing catechism class at the Franciscan mission just north of Mexico City on a cold morning on December 9, 1531. The practice of catechesis at this time was, after receiving all the sacraments of initiation, the catechumen continued in further study of mystagogy. Juan Diego is going to the Franciscan missionaries to have his faith in Christ deepened. En route, Juan passed a nearby hill called Tepeyac.
Tepeyac, which means hill in the native language of Nahuatl, is a craggy knoll devoid of life. Juan hears sonorous singing of birds and sees a lush garden paradise full of life. The Indians grasp truth in the works of nature. Much more than mere living organisms, for the Nahuatl, a hierarchy of being is apprehended. As Paul states in Romans, the Gentiles come to the truth of God through His handiwork in nature. To Juan Diego, hearing the birds and seeing living beings is an indication of goodness present in this precise moment. God does not disdain what He has created but purifies it of the mistaken notions that have crept into it. The sun does not need human sacrifices to sustain its motion. Though nature holds truth, it does not exhaust truth. “The Virgin takes what is good and true in the Indian culture and rearranges it in such a way that these same elements are brought to the fulfillment of truth.” The Virgin in her first dialogue with Juan uses birds, song, living creatures, and color. This is the setting for the first dialogue of the Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego in his “native language of Nahuatl and using Texcocan religious phrases.”
Translations of written works are as much an art as a science. Often times, there is not exact correspondence of words. Errors often creep in unintentionally. In the dialogue of Our Lady’s conversation with Juan, two languages are used, with both then translated into a third- English. The native language of Nahuatl is translated into Middle Spanish, then both to modern English. Fortunately, with the cause of the canonization of Juan Diego coupled with current anthropological findings of the Nahuatl, a good understanding of the conversation is had. In fact, the canonization process shows a proper use of the Historical Critical Method.
The singing stops and Juan Diego hears his name, ““Juanito, Juan Diegotzil, Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” His baptismal name is used in the affectionate Nahuatl. A humble man is addressed by his Christian name both as an individual and as part of a distinct culture. His faith is confirmed.
Juan Diego sees a beautiful woman adorned in clothing that “shone like the sun”. Surrounding the beautiful lady is a landscape that shone with the “brilliance of a rainbow”. The term of littlest or youngest contrasts with other cultures, where the oldest or first-born sons convey greater prominence. The eldest son receives the ancestral lands and the father’s blessing. First-born sons sit on the throne of the king, their father. In contrast, Jacob favors his younger son Joseph with a coat of many colors, which shows the tenderness that the youngest member of a family can have to a patriarch. This is the affection the beautiful lady conveys to Juan Diego in her first words of address.
The lady introduces herself in these words, “I am the ever-perfect holy Mary, who has the honor to be the mother of the true God [teotl Dios] by whom we all live [Ipalnemohuanki], the Creator of people [Teyocoyani], the Lord of the near and far [Tloque Nahuaque], the Lord of heaven and earth [Illhuicahua Tlaltipaque].” The lady uses both Nahuatl and Spanish words for God, teotl and Dios. This brief remark shows the universality of God. The title of ever-perfect holy Mary is in reference to the Immaculate Conception, a title officially recognized three centuries later in 1854 by Pius IX. More importantly, the title she will most often use is ‘mother’. In this greeting, both Christ’s humanity and divinity are affirmed. The Lord is interested in the macro of far and the micro of near. His dominion is universal and attentive.
Mary has a specific request focused on Christ. In her humility, Mary mentions herself sparsely, preferring to point to her Son. “I want very much that they build my sacred little house here, in which I will show Him, I will exalt Him upon making Him manifest, I will Him to all people in my personal love, Him that is my compassionate gaze, Him that is my help, Him that is my salvation. Because truly I am honored to be your compassionate other, yours and that of all the people that live together in this land, and also of all the various lineages of men; those who love me, those who cry to me, those who seek me, those who trust in me. Because there [at my sacred house] truly will I hear their cry, their sadness, in order to remedy, to cure all the various troubles, their miseries, their pains.” This place of worship will be a haven of consolation for all men. Mary is a mother for ALL the various lineages of men. Men will know the love of the Mother of Jesus and no longer feel alienated or orphaned. Her one task is to point out to her children, “Do whatever He asks.” Juan Diego who has been catechized by the heroic Franciscans, is capable of understanding this dialogue. Nothing is wasted in the economy of salvation. Humble bearings, backwater locales, arid and barren environment are not obstacles to love and tender mercy. As when the Lord took dried fish and a few loaves and fed thousands through the generosity of a young boy, so too He uses the generosity of Juan Diego to confer countless blessings for generations.
Mary continues with her request. “And to bring about what my compassionate and merciful gaze would achieve, go to the palace of the Bishop of Mexico, and tell him how I have sent you, so that you may reveal to him how I very much want him to build me a house here, to erect my temple on the plain; tell him everything, all you have seen and marveled at, and what you have heard. And know for sure that I will appreciate it very much and reward it, that because of it I will enrich you, I will glorify you; and because of it you will deserve very much how I will reward your fatigue, your service in going to petition the matter for which I am sending you. Now my dearest son, you have heard my breath, my word; go, do what you are responsible for doing.”
Freedom of conscience is respected. Juan Diego could choose to say “No” as our first parents did. He states his unworthiness to fulfill such a venerable request much like Moses. Not a refusal but a desire to see it have the best chance of success with someone of higher class. Moses, when ordered to go to Pharaoh, protests his inability. He is not a learned orator. He does not have prestigious standing. God used both Juan Diego and Moses in his work of salvation for God does not judge as men do. Juan Diego, Christ’s beloved disciple, has the most important qualities: trust and humility.
Our Lady also insists on the rightful authority of the Church. Juan Diego does not build the house himself. It is not a “me and Jesus moment”. Rather, he is sent to the representative of the Church: Don Fray Juan de Zumarraga, a Franciscan priest and bishop of Mexico City. The bishop as a wise leader has been combatting paganism and superstition for many years. The bishop listens but is skeptical of the request of Juan Diego. As a wise shepherd, he must test the veracity of Juan Diego. The bishop devises several means to discern the truth.
To be continued…
Tomie de Paola, The Lady of Guadalupe (Holiday House: New York) 1980