One of many tragedies in the last 500 years since the days of the Protestant reformation, has been the confusion, misunderstanding and controversy from that event which caused a number of Christians for the first time ever to question their views the Blessed Virgin Mary. The reformation has left many of our Protestant brothers and sisters to diminish Mary’s role, her example… to view her either as simply a character in the story of Christ or with disinterest. It hit me today that while the seeds of this were first happening in the beginning of the 16th Century – at exactly the same time, this monumental historic Marian Appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico took place.
In the early 16th Century, the Mexican people were suffering brutal attacks by Spanish colonizers who were taking over their lands, enslaving some of the people, murdering others. Understandably, when some other Spanish priests and religious were coming as missionaries wishing share the Gospel with the native peoples they were not exactly successful.
In the year 1513, the Blessed Virgin Mary appears to a native-born son, named Juan Diego, who was a recent convert to Christianity. Mary asks Juan Diego to go to the local bishop, to share what he witnessed and experienced – that he met the Mother of God who asked that a Church be built on that site. He’s hesitant, but obeys. His first meeting with the bishop goes exactly as he predicted to the Blessed Mother – he was rejected by the Bishop. And so he’s he’s reluctant, and scared when she wants him to go back and to keep insisting… But Mary keeps encouraging him to go back, to trust her as his Mother. He listens to her gentle prodding. When the bishop asks Juan to ask this “woman” for a sign, He accepts her gift, her sign – some flowers (which would have been for the region, but not at that time of the year) to give to the bishop – an abundant number of them. Which he carries in his cloak (his tilma) When he returns to the bishop with these flowers and removes them from the tilma, the image of the Blessed Mother as a dark skinned, pregnant, Aztec woman is supernaturally imposed on the cloak.
In a profound way, the people of that time, that region recognized that the Blessed Mother of Jesus had been given to them as their mother as well, as Our Lady of Guadalupe. They recognized Mary as one of them… whose child she was carrying, was divine, was meant for them as well.
In other words, Emmanuel – God with us.
Not surprisingly, this had a profound effect… Such that none of the previous missionaries had ever remotely approached. Over 8 million native-born people in the 7 years that followed converted to Christianity. Juan Diego had become a most successful missionary by humbly receiving God’s message and in his lowliness sharing it.
Which is precisely how the story of Jesus’ first coming occurred with Mary – who of all her titles, most beautifully is sometimes called “the first disciple.” As we heard in this familiar Gospel passage – it’s understandable that others, in this case, Elizabeth, can discern something holy, something special in Mary to the point that she excitedly receives her and to in that moment of encounter and joy is focused on Mary. But Mary’s response to Elizabeth is immediate – she proclaims that it is God who has done great things for her… Mary’s life mission is pointing away from herself and of pointing people to her son Jesus.
As she continues to do so today. We as Catholics have from Jesus’ first gifting Mary to us as our Mother from the Cross looked to her to help bring us closer to Jesus. To recognize how God enters into our human story, into our history. That Jesus, who is fully divine and fully human becomes one of us, dwells with us.
In Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Gospel is proclaimed, the story of Christ is made relatable to the people of that time and age. In that Aztec vision of the Blessed Mother, they experienced and learned of the God who wanted to let this people of that time and day know they too were His people. That they are a part of His family – our family – with a God who loves us and wants to be with us. What better, more universal way can that be first proclaimed, first introduced than in a mother’s love? The role of a mother crosses societies, cultures, languages and is most accessible and understandable to any and everyone.
As an Italian American, I can appreciate that as I can affectionately call the Blessed Mother “Mama Mary.” As a Church, Our Lady of Guadalupe reminds us that whatever race or nationality we’re from (or as Americans, the very mixed racial, national make up we share) every time, every people, all humanity are members of God’s family. And Mary as our Mother, far from being controversial means to keep proclaiming that and inviting people into her Son’s salvific work.
As we celebrate this particularly miraculous encounter that occurred and transformed this one region of the world, we’re invited to rejoice in the great gift that God has shared with all humanity of every time, every region in His son being born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus looks to meet each of us in our lowliness, in our humility. When he’s received that way, like our Blessed Mother he will be able to do great things in and with and through each of us.