Authentic Sign: Son & Mother


The Lady takes the Castilian roses, fragrant and beautiful, and arranges them in Juan Diego’s tilma. The Queen Mother instructs Juan to show the sign only to the bishop. The Lady’s last words to Juan Diego are, “You who are my ambassador, worthy of my confidence, I counsel you to take every care that you open your mouth only in the presence of the Bishop, and you must make it known to him what it is that you carry, and tell him how I asked you to climb to the top of the hill to gather the flowers. Tell him also all that you have seen, so that you will persuade the Lord Bishop and he will see that the church is built for which I ask.”[1]

Immediately, Juan with great confidence acts on her words. He hurries to the bishop’s residence, and in spite of waiting many hours and requests from many to peer into his cloak, he keeps his fragrant flowers hidden. At one point, a man sees a flower in the shadows of Juan’s tied up tilma and attempts to snatch it. The flower retreats from his grasp, and frightened the man runs to tell the bishop. At this point, the bishop admits Juan Diego.

Juan Diego, kneeling in front of the bishop, unties his cactus fiber woven tilma, thinking the flowers growing in winter will be the authentic sign. Rather, the bishop sees imprinted in the tilma the exact description by Juan of the Lady when the flowers tumble from his tilma to the floor. The roses, arranged by the Lady, take what is good in nature, and elevates it to a fulfillment of truth. Though nature is a great good, only the Creator is to be worshipped. This worship shall consist in love between the New World and the Old World. A New Evangelization, though based on Europe is not European but is truly intercultural.

The bishop, Fray Zumarraga, seeing the image, drops to his knees, weeps and asks forgiveness for not attending to her wish sooner. His servants nearby do the same. After some time in deep prayer, the bishop takes the tilma and hangs it in his chapel.

Meanwhile, Juan Bernardino, Juan Diego’s uncle, is healed. Juan Bernardino has a vision of a beautiful Lady, which is the same as the image on the tilma. She reveals her name. Henceforth she was to be known as “the Perfect Virgin HOLY MARY OF GUADALUPE.”[2] It is significant that the Lady revealed her name to the elder Juan Bernardino. For the Nahuatl, he is both community leader and Christian witness. His miraculous healing confirms the veracity of the vision. The name Guadalupe has its origins in Arabic, and refers to the river, which runs through Extremadura Spain. Life-giving streams of water have a rich biblical meaning. Mary as Queen Mother bears the Source of Eternal Life to all, regardless of ethnicity or race. Instead of the gods of the Aztecs requiring victims, God is nourishment through the Son.

The tilma is made of ayate, rough cactus fibers. Under the best preservation, it should have decomposed within 10 years of its fabrication. Yet through most of its 580 year existence it has been subject to a very corrosive Mexican environment without any archival protection. A bomb placed under the image in 1921 should have destroyed it, but only the frame of heavy metal was destroyed. The image itself was unmarred.

Mystagogy is the discipline in theology that sees through the physical sign to the spiritual realities represented. The tilma is a sign for our generation. The image of the lady is a mestiza, a blending of the Nahuatl and Spanish cultures. The rich design of the tilma indicates a person of nobility. Only those of higher castes had richly decorated tilmas. For Juan Diego, a commoner, to receive a richly colored tilma from a Lady of nobility shows her esteem of his worth and dignity.

The vibrant colors of turquoise and rose combined with the intricate codex on the robe indicate a person of royal bearing. The dark hair worn loose indicates virginity, while the dark band around her waist denotes maternity. The Indians immediately “read” this image as a Virgin Queen Mother who sees all men as her children, and so help them to know her Son, the source of all Life.

Our Lady speaks of her Son in titles of “Him who lives, Creator of people, Owner of near and close, Lord of Heaven and earth.”[3] These are titles that the indigenous people would have recognized. The glyph of the jasmine flower on the Lady’s womb, just under her pregnancy belt, tells the Indians that her Child is divine. With her head bowed in humility, towards her unborn Child, she shows that the omnipotent God cares deeply for each of His children through the tender love of a mother.

God is not stingy with His gifts. He can use each of us to bear his Word to others. In a particular way, He chose to use His Mother to bring His love to mankind. The Nahuatl respond with great devotion. Between the years 1531 and 1548 (the year the bishop and Juan Diego die) nine million Indians were baptized.

Because this authentic sign endures, it has relevance for this generation.

Our present age is marked by the death of innocents on a scale that dwarfs the Aztec’ ritual sacrifice. Cynicism, broken homes, and despair are entrenched in our society. We stand in need of the love of God. That He chooses to use His Mother to bring His love to man is a great grace. We, like Juan Diego, are not Cosmic Orphans. We have a spiritual family. Deo gratis.

            [1] Nican Mophua of Antonio Valeriano, as translated in Charles J Wahlig, Past Present and Future of Juan Diego (Kenosha WI, 1972) 83

            [2] Carl Anderson & Eduardo Chavez, Our Lady of Guadalupe (Doubleday: New York) 2009, 20

            [3] Ibid, 47

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