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St. Juan Diego (December 9)

December 9, 2008

Today we honor St. Juan Diego (in English, “John James”;
John meaning “God is gracious” and James meaning “supplanter”).
That’s his Baptismal name. According to tradition, his indigenous name was Cuauhtlatohuac, “The eagle who speaks”.
This ties in with his Baptismal name of John,
since St. John the Evangelist is represented by an eagle (because his Gospel is so lofty).

Juan Diego was a poor farmer (with a mat-weaving business on the side),
born in the great empire of the Aztecs some sixteen years
before Columbus discovered the Americas.
He was in his mid-forties when Emperor Montezuma surrendered to the invading Cortes in 1521,
and he and his wife were among the first to be Baptized into the new faith
brought by the Spanish missionaries.
Several years later his wife died and he moved in with his Christian uncle, Juan Bernardino.
Meanwhile, relations between the Spaniards and the indigenous people were deteriorating.
The Spaniards had proven themselves oppressive overlords,
and the native peoples were on the verge of revolt.

On Saturday morning, December 9, 1531
(yet another memorial that celebrates a special event in the life of a saint other than their death!),
Juan Diego was walking the nine miles to Mass.
He did this every Saturday and Sunday,
but this was a particularly special day
because at that time the Immaculate Conception was celebrated on December 9.
As he reached the vicinity of Tepeyac
(where once stood a temple to the Aztec goddess of earth and corn, Tonanzin,
whose name means “our mother”),
he heard beautiful music, as if sung by rare birds.
When he paused to listen, he heard someone calling, “Juanito, Juan Dieguito!”
Clambering up the hill, he came upon a breathtakingly beautiful young maiden,
dressed like an Aztec princess.
Speaking to him sweetly, she identified herself as the Blessed Virgin Mary,
expressed her compassion for all people,
and asked him go tell the bishop that she wanted a chapel built on this hill in her honor.
Juan Diego did as she asked, but Bishop Zumárraga didn’t believe him.
Juan returned to the Virgin, asking her to send someone more likely to be believed,
but she insisted that he was her choice and sent him back to the bishop the following day.
This time the bishop asked for a sign.
Juan Deigo was detained the next day.
His beloved uncle had fallen desperately ill, so Juan stayed to nurse him.
By morning (Tuesday, December 12, the day we honor Our Lady of Guadalupe),
his uncle was dying.
Juan hurried off to find a priest to hear his uncle’s confession
and give him the last rites of the Church.
Not wanting to be delayed on this important mission,
he went around the hill of Tepeyac the other way, hoping to avoid the Virgin.

She, however, had other plans!
Coming down the hill to meet him,
she assured him that his uncle would be healed and sent him up the hill
to gather the flowers he would find there as a sign for the bishop.
He did as she asked, although it was cold; not the season for flowers.
Not only did he find flowers, he found a variety of roses that were only grown in Castile, Spain,
roses the bishop had been asking of Mary privately
as a sign of her help in the midst of the perilous times.
The Virgin arranged the flowers in Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak made from cactus fiber),
and sent him off to the bishop.
When he finally entered the presence of the bishop (after some difficulty with the doorkeepers) and opened his tilma, the flowers fell to the floor.
All eyes, however, were on his tilma,
upon which appeared the image of the Lady he had described.

In the meantime, the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego’s uncle, healed him,
and told him that she wished the image to be entitled
“the Ever Virgin Holy Mary of Guadalupe”.
This may have been something of a play on words (quite common in Scripture),
and it served as a unifying force between the two cultures,
thus averting the violence that had been brewing.
The Aztec word she used was “coatlaxopeuh” which is pronounced “quatlasupe”
and sounds remarkably like the Spanish word Guadalupe,
so the Spaniards identified her with the patroness of Guadelupe in Estremada, Spain.
However, the Aztec meaning of the word refers to “the one who crushes the serpent”.
This was particularly important to the Aztecs
because one of their main gods was depicted as a feathered serpent.
The black crescent under her feet is thought to be a symbol of that god.
The sun was also worshiped as a god,
and she stands in front of the sun as one who supersedes it.
The stars on her mantle match the constellations the sky at the time of the apparition.
The image also contains Aztec hieroglyphics.
The one over her womb represents the center of the universe–
especially significant because the black girdle about her waist
indicates that she is with Child (Jesus).

The bishop, more than convinced by this point,
had the chapel built and put Juan Diego in charge of taking care of it.
Juan Diego moved into a little hut next to the chapel and spent the rest of his life (17 years) praying, taking care of the chapel and telling everyone who came
about Our Lady and about Her Son.
The native people, convinced by the image that the new religion was the true one,
converted to Catholicism in droves.
The Spaniards, in turn, realizing that Mary herself loved the native peoples,
began to treat them more humanely.

Juan Diego’s tilma, which would be expected to disintegrate after 20-30 years,
is still on display in Mexico, nearly 500 years after the original appearance of Mary.
Artists and scientists who have examined it have ruled out the work of human hands.
Cactus fiber is too difficult to paint on, there are no brush strokes, and the colors,
which have not faded, are more brilliant than would have been available to any artist of the time.
To this day, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a unifying force for the Mexican people.
She has been designated as the Patroness of all the Americas.

Juan Diego’s life has a particular message for those of us who make up the laity
(i.e., anyone who has not taken vows as a priest or religious).
We have a vocation too.
God has a mission for each of us, one that is distinct from the missions
He gives His priests and Religious.
In our reading from Isaiah, God explains that He wants to use us to do His work:
“I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new, and double-edged,
to thresh the mountains and crush them, to make the hills like chaff.
When you winnow them, the wind will carry them off and the storm shall scatter them.”
(Isaiah 41:15-16).
In the same way, He asked for Juan Diego’s participation in His work
of averting a clash of cultures and of bringing His Good News to the Mexican people
(and ultimately, to all of us),
but He was clearly the One who made it all possible.
He also distinguished between Juan Diego’s role in telling people about God
and the bishop’s role in ordering the chapel built
and baptizing and shepherding the new converts.

St. Juan Diego, pray for us!


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