This is a chapter of the book Guadalupe A River of Light. This part of the book deals to some extent with the symbology presented to us in the actions of Our Lady, St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, Bishop Zumárraga and others as the events of December 1531 unfolded.

We have briefly reviewed the history of the two nations visited by Our Lady of Guadalupe in her two apparitions, one Spanish and one Mexican. We have also examined the lives of the two visionaries, Gil Cordero and Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. We have followed the miraculous image of Mary of Nazareth from the days of St Luke the Evangelist, to the Reconquest of Spain, the discovery of America, the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, and the supernatural impression left by the Queen of Heaven on the tilma that once clothed a simple Macehualtin, Juan Diego. We have learned about the pure masculinity of both visionaries forever tied to the birth of their nations, and the history of salvation. The vision of Tepeyac is not the end of that wonderful voyage. When Juan Diego met the Mother of God, he was given first an auditory treat, the song of birds, a sweet sound designed to prepare him for the vision ahead of him. Mothers sometimes sing to make their children sleep, Mary is no different. In reality, she is more of a mother to us than our own mothers could ever be because she is the archetype of motherhood and those born of her will live forever. That morning of December 9, 1531, she arranged the song of birds to alert Juan Diego to the realities of Heaven that she was about to show him. That pure music, coming from God’s living creation, was accompanied by the song of the very hill where Juan Diego was standing. Adam was alerted by the voice of God in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:10) and the Roman faithful processing with the image of Our Lady heard angels singing as they passed Castel Sant’Angelo.

I wonder if there is a connection between that brief morning concert and the natural talent for song and music that nearly all Mexicans have. Music has the power to affect our thoughts and our mood. Scientists have found recently that music can positively affect the development of intelligence in children, even in the womb. That song was very different from the religious music that Juan Diego could remember from infancy, the frantic beat of the demonic snakeskin drums, sounding at the hour when human sacrifices were offered.

He stopped to look but he did not trust his own senses. “I must be dreaming,” he thought. The experience was intense enough for him to dismiss that first idea. “Perhaps I am in Paradise,” the land of eternal spring, of flowers and abundance, the netherworld described in the Aztec religion. His pagan ancestors believed in nine underworlds, represented by each moon in the human period of gestation, but Juan Diego’s instincts were already guided by his incipient Christian formation. Instead of looking around to ascertain his whereabouts, something made him look up to the top of the hill. The Tepeyac, like a precious jewel, basked in the glory of the rising sun. Now all of Juan Diego’s senses were focused and ready. This was not an ordinary sunrise.[1]

Suddenly the birds stopped singing. There was a brief silence and then he heard the sound of his own Christian name pronounced by the sweetest voice: “Juan Diegotzin.”

It is very difficult to explain the use of the diminutive in the Nahuatl language. Even to this day, Mexicans use the diminutive to express affection in Spanish. Lovers call their beloved “mi pequeñita” (my little one) and even Our Lady of Guadalupe is well known as “La Morenita” never disrespectfully but with profound affection. In Nahuatl however, the diminutive carries a meaning similar to the royal treatment in other languages. I found one close example in the well-known English anthem:

God save our gracious Queen!
Long live our noble Queen!

If per impossibile someone had to sing that in Nahuatl, the word “Queen” would be in the diminutive-honorific as a moving expression of faith, exultation, and profound respect: gracious, noble, and beloved would be expressed by the addition of the syllable “tzin”. The sweet voice calling Juan Diego was using that form. Our humble Macehualtin was treated with honor and love from the start.

We know our Saint did not fret like others who had encountered heavenly visitors. Observe that nearly everyone experiencing the numinous, even great saints, tend to feel afraid. The Prophet Ezekiel fell with his face to the ground when he had his vision of the chariot of God[2] but something in the voice of the person calling gave him the strength necessary to stand in a dignified manner before the Throne of God: “He said to me, ‘Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.’” When He spoke, the Spirit came into me and made me stand on my feet.”[3]

In contrast with Ezekiel, the children involved in other apparitions of Our Lady were not afraid. Innocence is not scared when experiencing a heavenly vision. What the Nican Mopohua tells us about Juan Diego’s disposition is a good indication that his heart was as pure at that of a child but he had also a brave, masculine heart devoid of the fear of death.

Confidently, Juan Diego advanced towards the voice and “his heart was not disturbed and he felt extremely happy and contented” as he climbed the hill. Juan Diego was a 54-year-old man at the time of the apparitions; he was likely to be a seasoned fighter trained from youth to survive the Aztec flower wars if needed. He knew very well that those standing on a hill have the advantage over those climbing, and yet he climbed confidently with a trusting heart. That confidence was instilled by the celestial voice calling him with the same power that gave the Prophet Ezekiel the strength to stand up before God’s chariot.

After ascending a distance towards the voice, he saw a young maiden bidding him come closer. This is another indication of Juan Diego’s purity of heart. I am quite sure that impure eyes were never allowed to look upon Our Blessed Mother. Perhaps our saint was prepared for this encounter by many years of ascetic life and contemplation of the newly learned Christian mysteries. He was privileged to see the glorified presence of the Virgin Mary, something only a few saints had seen before. His reaction was one of saintly admiration.

The Maiden from Heaven was shining as if she was dressed in waves of light. Her glorious presence seemed to transform the landscape surrounding her. Seeing that, Juan Diego knew that she was sanctifying the Tepeyac even before she uttered a single word about building a church there. When Joshua met the Angel of Israel[4] he was told: “the place where you stand is holy ground” because the presence of the Angel had a purifying effect on the land. The Perfect Virgin Mary, as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, blessed with her presence the ground of the Cerrito in the same manner described in the Golden Sequence for the Mass of Pentecost:

Veni, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium […]
Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.[5]

Juan Diego saw the crags about him transformed, beaming light like precious stones, reminding us of the vision of the New Jerusalem seen by St John:

“The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were adorned with every precious stone: the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was made of gold, pure and clear as glass.”[6]

Even the prickly nopal cacti appeared to Juan Diego as made of emeralds. For the Mexicans of that age, few things were more precious than emeralds and jade. In this part of the vision, the thorns of the nopal were transformed into something most desirable. That image is a figure of the glory of Heaven awaiting the faithful after the sufferings of the Cross.

“The earth seemed to shine with the brilliance of a rainbow in the mist” the same rainbow that sealed the promises of a new world in times of Noah, the rainbow that the Aztecs painted on the vestments of their god of rain, Tlaloc. Now the vision, the image completes the Aztec idea of divine blessings, conveying the idea of mother earth (Coatlicue Toniatzin,) the life-giving sun rays (Tonatiuh,) and the gentle rain (Tlaloc) blessing the land with the promise of a good harvest. Ascending majestically towards the knowledge of Heaven is “the one that speaks like an eagle,” the Cuauhtlatoatzin aptly representing Cuauhxicalli, the sacred eagle-vessel. The meaning of this part of the vision is in my mind, very obvious: Heaven is putting together a parable using the symbols familiar to the Mexican people. The gentle teaching of Heaven is clear: Juan Diego is the chosen vessel[7] who will be elevated to Heaven carrying not a bleeding heart of flesh but the purity of his own heart as a sacrifice acceptable to the true God. So through this selected vessel Cuauhtlatoatzin, a heart purified by so many sufferings, God will be finally revealed to the Mexican people after centuries of darkness.

O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt-offering, you would not be pleased.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.[8]

The mission of the Talking Eagle begins at this encounter at Tepeyac. What follows is a marvelous lesson that will be condensed in his vision, and impressed upon his humble tilma.

God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. [9]

Juan Diego the talking Eagle will gladly walk many miles in the days following his first vision. The effort that would tire even a young man will not tire his five-decade-old body. He will be charged with taking his nation to God, and God Himself is infusing him with the strength to deliver the Divine Gospel.

The Nican Mopohua continues: “He prostrated himself in her presence, listening to her voice and to her words, which were full of praise, very affable, as those of someone who wished to attract him and esteemed him highly.”[10]

Juan Diego’s heart is in the right place. He did not have to be knocked off his feet like Saul of Tarsus. He understood who was addressing him. Prostration was the proper attitude along with paying careful attention to the words of the Lady from Heaven.

We know that Juan Diego understood he was seeing the Perfect Virgin Mary by the manner he answered the Lady’s question: “Quimolhuili – ‘Tlaxiccaqui noxocoyouh Juantzin, campa in timohuica?’” That is: “She said unto him, ‘Hear, my beloved, my youngest son, Juantzin: where are you going?”

To which Juan Diego respectfully answers, revealing his understanding that The Lady is the Celestial Queen of the Church: “My Lady, my Queen, my Beloved Maiden! I am going as far as your noble little house in Mexico-Tlatelolco, to pursue the knowledge of God there taught to us by those who are the image of Our Lord, our priests.”

Then the Lady of Heaven does the following:

  • She confirms her identity.
  • She states her desire to build a “little house” for her at the Cerrito.
  • She states her purpose, to give her Son to the people.
  • She orders Juan Diego to inform the Bishop of Mexico.

Juan Diego greets her most respectfully and departs “immediately to do as instructed, taking the straightest way to Mexico.”

The Eagle Struggles Heavenward

Bishop Zumarraga had recently arrived with both ecclesiastical and temporal powers to take care of the dangerous situation developing in Mexico. A number of Spanish authorities were dispossessing the Mexicans, exploiting them, and in many cases murdering them mercilessly. Cortez was away in Spain standing trial at the Royal Court because of false accusations, and trying to save his reputation as a loyal servant of King Charles. The Mexican converts were under constant pressure from those who wanted to return to Aztec rule, in addition to being attacked by avaricious Spaniards coveting their land and possessions. The natives vastly outnumbered the Spaniards, and they were beginning to rebel in some areas. The country was a tinderbox waiting for a spark to ignite a general rebellion. Some of the Spaniards loyal to the Crown were trying to inform the King but the rebels were in control of all communications with the Royal Court.

A serious insurgency menaced the Mexican domain of King Charles V. Bishop Zumarraga was a man of strong faith and he did what a man of faith does when facing a desperate situation: he fell to his knees and poured prayer after prayer before the Lord. The day of the Immaculata, December 8, 1531, in a secret report sent to King Charles, he briefly wrote: “Unless there is supernatural intervention, the country is lost.” After that, he trusted the country’s troubles to the Immaculata and went to sleep.

The answer to his prayers did not tarry long. While he was still asleep, the morning of December 9, Our Lady of Guadalupe was appearing to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the one that speaks like an eagle. By the time Bishop Zumarraga kneeled to pray the first prayers of the Daily Office, Juan Diego was hurrying towards the Bishop’s residence with a message from the Queen of Heaven herself.

When Juan Diego arrived at the Bishop’s residence, he waited patiently, bearing the morning cold until he was allowed to see the Bishop. We can imagine the scene; the Bishop was well guarded, due to the perilous situation developing outside the walls of his palace. That may be the reason Juan Diego was made to wait a prudential time. But there was another reason. In spite of his conversion and exemplary life, he was a despised Macehualtin, barely a man in the eyes of the Aztec society. When it became evident that Juan Diego was not dangerous, the guards most likely took him for a lunatic. But Bishop Zumarraga was a real man of God—we have to thank God for the Franciscan order—what would have been of Mexico if it was not for the good heart of Don Juan de Zumarraga. The King had met him years ago while Don Zumarraga was preaching a retreat for the men of the Royal House. Charles V was also a man of God, profoundly Catholic for a prince of that era; he was the son of Phillip the Handsome, and Joan of Castile. Through his mother, he was the grandson of Queen Isabella of Castile, and King Ferdinand of Aragon. He was arguably one of the most Catholic men ever to sit on a royal throne. When news of injustice and exploitation of his Mexican subjects reached him, he quickly invested Don Juan de Zumarraga with the title of Bishop and the powers of a temporal Viceroy.

The morning of December 9, 1531, when Juan Diego the beloved Eagle informed Don Juan of his earlier encounter with the Virgin Mary, surely the good Bishop remembered his prayers begging God for help. Through a translator, he heard the report of Juan Diego, sending him off with a promise to think about it and hear the report again some other time.

Juan Diego departed, sadly convinced that his low station in life was the cause why the Bishop would not believe his report. He walked back to the Cerrito with a heavy heart. Our Lady was waiting for him at the same place. Prostrating before her, Juan Diego told her the sad news. The Bishop was not inclined to believe a poor Macehualtin, a commoner of no importance like him. Juan Diego begged Our Lady of Guadalupe to take into account how small and how utterly unimportant he was.

Failure and Mercy

What is not very apparent here is that Juan Diego is begging for his life because his mind was still influenced by his Aztec upbringing. He had been given an errand by the Christian equivalent of Coatlicue Toniatzin, on the very hill where the old temple of the goddess used to stand. Remember that Coatlicue gave birth to her children and also took their life without remorse. In his mind, Juan Diego was a total failure and thus he expected to be punished for his faults. The Aztec gods were not merciful at all, as it befits monsters thirsty for human blood and flesh. Juan Diego was expecting the old obsidian knife to tear into his chest; he felt he had to satisfy Our Blessed Mother for his shameful failure to convey a simple message.

His discourse is the plea of a man whose heart was broken by years of demonic pressure placed upon him by a barbaric and uncompassionate religion, by a brutal taxation system that left his tribe with no room for error, always working to survive one more unmerciful year. This was a man who lived all his life watching his peers dismembered by the Aztec priests after working a lifetime like beasts of burden to fulfill the demands of the tax collectors.

Here is where the tender care of the Mother of God comes to console Juan Diego. With affectionate words, she explains that he is the one chosen to be her ambassador, the messenger. Hinting at the future elevation of Juan Diego to sainthood, she calls him an intercessor of Heaven:

“Listen to me, my son, the smallest of my children: be certain that I do not lack servants or messengers that can do my bidding, my word, my wishes but it is necessary that you do this personally. By your intercession, my will and my wishes will be accomplished. So I urge you, I insist, my youngest son that you go again tomorrow to see the Bishop. Make him understand on my behalf, let him hear my desire, my will to build the temple that I am asking for. Tell him again that I, the Ever Virgin Holy Mary, the Mother of God, have sent you.”

Imagine the relief of our poor Juan Diego! He was not going to be hit by a bolt from above; his chest was not going to be opened by the priestly knife. This was not Coatlicue Toniatzin, the one dressed in a skirt made of snakes, the maker, and killer of her own children. He had met her at sunrise, and then again at dusk at “the hour when the sun dies,” and yet he was still alive. Even after failing he still had a mission, and more than a mission: a destiny.

The Second Sunrise

The next day, Juan Diego got up early again to walk the usual thirteen miles to Tlatelolco. After attending Mass and receiving his religious instruction, he directed his steps to the Bishop’s house. He was ignored by the servants again and had to wait a long time to be received. Once before the venerable Bishop, Juan Diego begged him with tears to believe the word of the Virgin Mary. This time the Bishop asked him many questions to ascertain the veracity of the message and the integrity of the messenger. Something was beginning to break the Bishop’s skepticism. First of all, he had reports that Juan Diego was a good man that had a saintly reputation. The message delivered by the poor native was theologically correct. Even when pressed for information, Juan Diego was consistent and sincere. What was going on? Obviously, a barely formed catechumen from a culture so foreign to Christian Spain could not possibly make up such a theologically perfect scam. Was one of the local Catholic priests involved? Zumarraga knew that some of his priests were sympathetic to the heretical teachings of a German monk, Martin Luther, who was causing quite a lot of trouble in Germany. Was someone trying to fuse the old cult of Coatlicue Toniatzin with Christianity to gain the loyalty of the poor natives and start a rebellion? Was this a trick of the devil seeking to reinstate the old demonic religion of the Aztec Empire? Or was this man the answer to his fervent prayers for a supernatural intervention to save the Dominion of New Spain, and the King’s Mexican subjects?

Just in case, he instructed Juan Diego to bring back some proof of his contact with the Virgin Mary. The native agreed and left, not without promising the Bishop that he was going to ask Our Lady of Guadalupe for proof of her visitation.

The Bishop had enough trouble on his hands but he decided to investigate the strange incident discreetly by sending two men to spy on Juan Diego. But the men lost track of him in the middle of the causeway. The man miraculously vanished before their very eyes. That report must have intrigued the Bishop even more.

A short time later, Juan Diego was once again at the Cerrito, reporting to the Lady of Heaven on his encounter with the Bishop. She listened to Juan Diego’s report and instructed him to return next morning.

Juan Diego returned home and found out that his uncle, Juan Bernardino, was seriously ill. The local medicine man was called but soon it was evident that Juan Bernardino’s fever was likely to take his life. Aztecs believed that the end of life was caused by one of the gods coming to take the soul of the dying. So if one was hit by a bolt of lightning, they believed that person was being called by Tlaloc. In this case, the shaman believed fever was a sign that the sun god was taking Juan Bernardino.

Of course, both Juan Bernardino and Juan Diego were Christians and had a different idea of how to deal with imminent death. A priest had to be called to administer the dying man the Sacrament of Last Rites.

Notice the image forming through the story. The sun is present in Juan Bernardino’s illness as a fever, in Juan Diego’s name as the morning’s rising eagle, in the sunlight surrounding the Lady of Heaven, in Juan Diego’s returning to Cuautitlan at sunset, and in many other smaller details. The eagle was a symbol representing nobility and greatness among the Aztecs. The whole story resounds with one message in the native mind: “the sun is here to visit us, to bring us light.” We find that in the Old Testament, the Messiah is compared to great light dispelling darkness: “The people that walked in darkness, have seen a great light: unto those dwelling in the land of the shadow of death, light has shined.”[11] St Matthew later quotes that: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death a light has dawned.”[12] The prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled in the Gospel According to St Matthew, indicating the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the land of Galilee. There, by Lake Gennesaret, Christ is going to gather crowds and lead them to the light of truth by curing disease, expelling demons, and gathering large crowds hungry to hear the Word of God. The Mother of God was going to act very similarly to evangelize Mexico. People like Juan Bernardino were cured by the shores of Lake Texcoco, Mexico’s Gennesaret; there the bloodthirsty demonic gods were expelled from the land, and millions of Mexicans were called to the light of Christ by the example of Juan Diego, and the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The three and a half days of the cycle of Guadalupe remind us of the Passion of the Christ. Juan Diego has to bring a message from Heaven to incredulous ears, and like so many other servants of Christ through the ages, he has to struggle with indifference and aggression to bring light to those dwelling in spiritual darkness. He is the vessel, a living Cuauhxicalli rising with the sacrifice of a pure heart, carrying with him the hopes of his people so the light won’t be extinguished among them. He rises heavenward, struggling against the forces of darkness as a new St Paul, a new apostle to the Mexicans: “For our combat is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the principalities of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”[13]

The Third Sunrise

Why was Juan Bernardino so ill at a time when Juan Diego was so busy dealing with those extraordinary errands from Heaven? We find the answer in the Gospel of John. There the disciples ask Jesus why a certain man had been born blind. Jesus’ answer is clear, the man’s defect was not an outward manifestation of a secret sin by him or his parents; it was an opportunity to show God’s mercy working to rescue mankind from original sin and all its consequences. At the beginning of that passage, only Jesus “can see” the situation. The disciples are “in the dark” and ask Jesus to explain who was responsible for the poor man’s blindness. The blind man—in addition to his own physical blindness—is as much “in the dark” as the disciples. Those who can see must work while daylight lasts, before night falls. In this brief parable, Jesus compares himself to the sun, giving light and life to the world. Many detractors of Christianity try to dismiss the Gospel as “just another solar myth”[14] but they cannot dismiss the realities attached to it. While it is true that human imagination has created myths throughout history, only God operates in such a way that he can direct creation to represent what he wants to teach mankind. To use the well-known words of the British apologist C.S. Lewis: “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”[15] The same thing is true of the story we read in the Nican Mopohua about Juan Diego, who is presented as a living Cuauhxicalli, carrying not the heart of a poor victim of the Aztec priests but the life of Christ in him. Juan Diego is given the task of being an example of Christ before his own people so they can also have light and life.

Chapter 9 of the Gospel According to St John begins with: “As he walked along, he saw a man who was born blind. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus responded, ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him. I must work the works of Him who sent me while there is daylight because night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’”[16]

All Christian disciples are called to be the light of the world in imitation of Christ himself. “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’”[17] In the fifth chapter of the Gospel According to St Matthew, Jesus says: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp-stand, and it gives light to all in the house.   In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[18] Who could deny that Juan Diego was chosen to bring the light of Christ, to be a “city built on a hill” to let the light of Christ shine before the whole Mexican nation born in unity at the Cerrito?

Juan Bernardino’s illness was not an inconvenience. It was part of the sign presented to Juan Diego first, to the Zumarraga second, and to the Mexican people, in the same way as the blind man in the Gospel of John, or the son of Gil Cordero. Later on, we will find that Juan Bernardino was trusted to remember the name of “Guadalupe”—a word his ears had never heard up to the moment of his miraculous cure.

Juan Diego left that morning earlier than usual and tried to avoid meeting the Lady from Heaven on his way to the city. He did not remember that all mothers know what their children are up to. This part of the story reveals the child-like nature of Juan Diego. He loved his uncle and had to take care of his urgent needs. At the same time, he was planning to take care of the Lady’s errand at a later date. To avoid a delay, he took a different route that time. But as he was passing by the Cerrito, he saw the Lady coming down the slope. Our friend is no Prophet Jonah, he is not trying to escape from his duties as a messenger for the Virgin Mary, but he feels he has failed twice to convince the Bishop and now—due to circumstances he cannot control—he is failing to receive from the Virgin Mary the promised proof of her presence. We understand his sincere apologies before the Lady of Heaven, he is still afraid of punishment, yet nothing of that sort is going to happen. Instead of a chastisement, Juan Diego hears the most beautiful words of consolation in the sweet sounds of his own language:

“Listen, put it into your heart, my little, most dear son, what has frightened you, what has afflicted you is nothing. Do not let that disturb you. Do not fear this illness nor any other illness, nor any sharp and hurtful thing. Am I not here, I, who am your mother? Aren’t you under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Aren’t you in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more?”[19]

While she is speaking these tender words of consolation to Juan Diego, she is also appearing to Juan Bernardino, telling him: “I am Saint Mary of Guadalupe, go to the Bishop and tell him all that you have seen and heard.”[20] At the same time, she is telling Juan Diego: “Do not fear death, illness, or any sharp thing”, in a clear reference to the dreaded sacrificial knife of the Aztec priests. Then she instructs Juan Diego to go to the top of the hill to gather flowers, she tells him to cut them and bring them back to her. At this point, Juan Diego must have thought, “another impossible task!” Now we know that was the first day of winter. The wind in Mexico at that time of the year comes from the north. Juan Diego knew that finding flowers on the hilltop was as impossible as it has been to convince the Bishop, but he obediently commanded his old bones to climb the rest of the way to the top of the Tepeyac. The vision that had started with the beautiful song of birds was going to produce now another miracle. He found plenty of beautiful flowers and filled his ayate with them as instructed, descending the slope to where the Lady of Heaven was waiting for him. He had collected Castilian roses, flowers unknown in the American continent at the time. The Bishop would recognize them because he was a Spaniard, and a Franciscan well acquainted with Our Blessed Mother’s preference for beautiful roses. Our Lady tenderly arranged the flowers in a motherly gesture and instructed Juan Diego to show them to no one else but the Bishop.

Juan Diego walked the long road to the Bishop’s residence only to be ill received. He was told to sit and wait. It was cold and he did not even have the cover of his tilma, now used to wrap the flowers. He sat there for three or four hours. Eventually, the guards asked him what was he carrying there. Juan Diego recalled the instructions of Our Lady, “show them to no one else but the Bishop” and tried to comply but the guards attempted to grab the flowers. Every time they tried, the roses dematerialized and appeared to be part of the tilma, as if painted or embroidered on the fabric.

The poor guards were most likely uneducated and superstitious men. They thought some kind of sorcery was going on. They had followed Juan Diego only a few days before and saw him disappear while crossing the causeway but this new trick was too much for them. Terrified, they burst into the Bishop’s chambers. Don Zumarraga was busy, perhaps with a family group after a baptismal ceremony. He allowed the guards to bring Juan Diego into the audience chamber. Juan Diego announced to the translator that he had the proof the Bishop requested. He was told to show it at once.

Juan Diego was in front of the Bishop, who was surrounded by a group of people. According to the information we have, there were some servants, the guards, the Franciscan translator, maybe other religious, and a family group. Divine Providence arranged a varied group of witnesses to be present.

Juan Diego had tied two corners of the shorter side of his oblong poncho around his neck—the same tilma seen by millions of faithful over the last five centuries. He let go of the other end, thus unloading the flowers onto the ground. Of course, Juan Diego could not easily see the surface of the cloth, and besides, his eyes were most likely fixed on the Bishop and the translator with whom he was speaking. The impossible winter flowers from across the Atlantic spread across the floor. The image then appeared on the tilma that was just a nondescript piece of ayate only seconds before. It was at that point when the prophecy of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego was fulfilled: “And know for certain that I will appreciate it exceedingly and reward it, that I will enrich you because of it, I will exalt you.”[21] The poor Macehualtin stood there, amazed as Don Juan de Zumarraga, Bishop of Mexico, and representative of King Charles V, King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, humbly kneeled before him, weeping and asking forgiveness for not having believed his words. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe had entered the world and was already transforming hearts.

Flowers from Heaven

Do not forget the flowers because they are very important. The poor souls selected for the cruel sacrifices at the altars of the Aztec gods were flowers harvested at the Xochiyaoyotl, the flower wars. Those wars were organized in a fashion similar to today’s sports leagues competitions to capture men to be sacrificed to the gods. Those captured by both sides were destined to die at the altar. The Aztec gods demanded the sacrifices of those worshiping them but the Christian God was one that had willingly sacrificed himself for his people.

The flowers spread on the floor at the feet of Our Lady’s image had a powerful symbolic charge. On the lower part of Our Lady’s garment, heavenly hands had painted a shadow that clearly resembled the Crucified God. The girdle or bow around Our Lady’s waist was a sign of her pregnancy. The bow appears as the nahui ollin, the flower of the sun. The image represents fertility; Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to the natives “blooming” with the promise of life, she was a pregnant princess as indicated by the position of her delicate bow and the slight swelling of her abdomen. And yet—there was no skull next to it symbolizing death—her child was not condemned to a natural death like the children of Coatlicue Toniatzin.

For the Franciscans present at the scene of the miracle, the flowers had also a very strong meaning. They were familiar with a piece of Catholic history very connected with the miraculous sign happening before them. The Friars were surely reminded of Saint Didacus, better known as St Diego of Alcala, (1400-1463) the same saint that the Spanish monks honored in the 16th century when they named a village in California, now the city of San Diego. Yes, this was the very saint from whom Juan Diego took his confirmation name. The names of the Saints he chose for his new Christian identity were St John and St Diego.

St John is usually depicted as “the eagle”[22] and St Diego is usually represented carrying something hidden in his cloak: either roses or food for the poor. He was a doorkeeper in various convents and he used to give to the poor everything he could.

The traditional story tells that one day he was taking food to a poor beggar when he ran into his Superior, a very stern disciplinarian who asked him what was he carrying in the fold of his cloak. Very scared, poor St Diego answered that he was carrying some roses. When his Superior told him to open the cloak, several dozen roses cascaded down to the floor.[23] See the illustration above: San Diego and The Miracle of the Flowers, currently at the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The similarity of his story with that of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin is obvious. What is not so obvious is that the miracle of the roses happened and was known one hundred years before Juan Diego was baptized selecting “Diego” for his Christian name.

For the astonished Franciscans watching the Guadalupe event unfold, that was a hidden miracle revealing that Our Lady was already working in the life of Juan Diego even at the time he was baptized. Our Lady of Guadalupe was sending a message to her Franciscan Friars: she had seen in Juan Diego the exemplary spiritual disposition of St Diego of Alcala, a man full of mercy and care for the poor. The message was coming through a poor Macehualtin they had been mistreating for the last four days. Now we can understand the tears and deep apologies Don Juan de Zumarraga and his friars expressed before Juan Diego.

The vision described in the Nican Mopohua expands in all directions. It carries a message that is particularly directed to certain groups of people—the Spaniards, the Mexicans, and even people who were not yet born in 1531—and also a universal message reassuring mankind of the tender love of Our Mother and Our Lord. One could analyze and contemplate the wonders of Guadalupe for a lifetime, and yet discover it anew every time. In my mind that is the clear signature of the Divinity.

[1] In fact, there were only four days left to the Solstice of Winter which the Aztecs considered the birth or renewal of the Sun. That year marked the beginning of the Age of the Fifth Sun in the Aztec Calendar. The European Julian Calendar was lagging about nine days by 1531. Spain would not adopt the more precise Gregorian Calendar until fifty years later.

[2] Ezekiel 1:1-28.

[3] Ezekiel 2:1-2.

[4] Once when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went to him and asked him, “Are with us or against us?” The man replied, “Neither; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped, and he said to him, “What do you command your servant, my lord?” The commander of the army of the LORD said to Joshua: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did as he was told. (Joshua 5: 13-15)

[5] Come, Holy Spirit, / and from Heaven send /the radiant light of your beams […] / Wash away our impurities, / water our barren soil, / and heal our wounds.

[6] Revelation 21:18-21.

[7] For a better understanding of the image, consider Acts 9:15 – “But the Lord said to [Ananias], ‘Go, for he [Saul of Tarsus] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” See also Acts 9: 1-19 where God prepares Saul of Tarsus through a vision to become Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. God also prepares Juan Diego in a similar manner to take the Gospel to the Mexicans. However, the gentle disposition of the Mexican contrasts with Saul of Tarsus’ ardent persecution of the flock of Christ.

[8] Psalm 51:16-18.

[9] Isaiah 40:29-31.

[10] Quoted from Our Lady of Guadalupe by Lawrence Feingold, from Three talks given at the Rigali Center, May 5-7, 2009, transcription published by Ave Maria University, Institute for Pastoral Theology.

[11] See Isaiah 9:1-3.

[12] See Matthew 4:12-23.

[13] Ephesians 6:12.

[14] See The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. Published by Anchor Books, Random House.

[15] “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths […] At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.” C.S. Lewis Letter to Arthur Greeves, October 18, 1931.

[16] John 9:1-5.

[17] John 9:39.

[18] Matthew 5:14-16

[19] Nican Mopohua, 119.

[20] “And that he would properly name her beloved Image thus: the Perfect Virgin, Holy Mary of Guadalupe.” Nican Mopohua, 228.

[21] Nican Mopohua, 35.

[22] See Revelation 4:6-7 where the four creatures give glory to God. Those are traditionally understood to represent the Four Evangelists in this order: St Mark, St Luke, St Matthew, and St John—“Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature is like a lion, the second living creature is like an ox, the third living creature has a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature is like a flying eagle.” The eagle is the symbol used to represent John the Apostle, the Evangelist who gave us the Fourth Gospel. His writing soars towards heaven like a mystical eagle seeking the light and divinity of Christ. In art, St John the Evangelist is often depicted with an eagle, symbolizing the heights he reached in writing his Gospel. St John was also “the Lord’s beloved disciple” (John 21:7)—that is the same Nahuatl name Our Lady calls our beloved Juan Diego, “Juan-tzin”! During the Last Supper, the young Evangelist leaned against Jesus’ chest and heard the heartbeat of the Most Sacred Heart. That is why St John is considered an example of how to listen to the life of God in all creation. In the same manner, the Cycle of Tepeyac begins with Juan Diego’s auditory experience, listening in awe to the song of the birds of Heaven, and the glorious counterpoint of the mountain itself. Both clearly represent the totality of creation: Heaven and Earth.

[23] The Catholic Church remembers St Diego of Alcala on November 13.