Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Advent Reflections: The World's First Selfie

The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which the Catholic church observes today, traces its origin to 1531. In that year, legend holds that a man named Juan Diego experienced a miracle – one that would irrevocably change the religious complexion of what is now Mexico.

Diego, a converted Aztec, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary on a hilltop. She asked him to take a message to the local bishop that she wanted a chapel built on the hill in her honor, on what happened to be the former site of a pagan temple.

The bishop didn’t believe Diego at first, so the Virgin, in another appearance, told Diego to pick the Castillan roses that had suddenly bloomed on the hill, well out of season, and take them to the bishop, who would recognize the roses that were native to his Spanish homeland. So Diego bunched them up in his tilma, and in the presence of the bishop, he unfurled it. The roses tumbled to the floor, to reveal, imprinted on Diego’s cloak, an image of the Virgin herself.

The short story of what happened next is that Juan Diego’s tilma triggered a mass conversion of natives – as many as 10 million over the next decade – to Catholicism, as news spread far and wide about the miraculous event. The tilma was eventually put on public display in the chapel that the bishop built on the hill, as the Virgin had requested, and soon pilgrims began reporting miraculous events, including healings, in the presence of the image.

The longer, and perhaps more intriguing, story is that the event occurred at a time when the natives were chafing under the harsh rule of the conquering Spaniards, and talk of revolt was in the air. The Spanish Catholics, meanwhile, were struggling with how to get the Aztecs to renounce their barbaric practice of human sacrifice. The image on Diego’s tilma was ripe with symbols that the natives would have recognized, in a manner that suggested the Virgin’s subjugation of the icons of the Aztec faith; and at the same time the image was unmistakably a representation of the woman clothed in the sun from Revelation 12, wearing the color of royalty and pregnant with the Incarnate Word, yet taking on the appearance of one of them, a common Aztec girl. The message was unmistakable: The Virgin, the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, revealing herself as a young, humble Mestiza, became a bridge between two peoples and two faiths. 

And thus did the threat of revolt die, along with the practice of human sacrifice, as the Virgin of Guadalupe pointed the natives toward a new destiny.

The image now hangs in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico City. The church is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world, and the image remains of extreme importance to Latino Catholics and to Mexicans in particular. Today marks the annual feast day of Nuestra SeƱora, whom Pope John Paul II named the patron saint of all the Americas.

The image continues to inspire millions. But just as the Shroud of Turin has its skeptics, so does the Guadalupe image. Close examination has suggested the presence of brush strokes around the eyes, as well as flaking around a seam and possible sketch marks. Moreover, the very existence of Juan Diego is a matter of debate, as neither Diego nor the incident in which he unfurled his tilma is mentioned in the bishop’s surviving writings.

Yet the image holds just as many mysteries that have left even the most hardened skeptics puzzled. The most obvious matter is the tilma itself. Made of mere cactus fibers, the cloak should have disintegrated centuries ago. Those who have touched it remark on how the area where the image appears is soft, almost silky to the touch, which itself is inexplicable.

Moreover, some inspections have suggested that the only brushstrokes that appear are in areas where the image was known to have been embellished over the years, while the original underlying image lacks any evidence of brushstrokes whatsoever, as if it had been inexplicably imprinted onto the fabric. It’s also been confirmed that the stars on the Virgin’s mantle are arranged in exactly the way the night sky would have appeared on the day of her appearance in 1531. And perhaps the most intriguing part of all is that, under extreme magnification, Mary’s eyes appear to show reflections of the people who would have been gathered around the bishop at the moment Juan Diego unrolled his cloak, as if the image somehow recorded the moment.

And just as numerous pilgrims will attest to the tilma’s miraculous power, so the tilma itself seems to have been miraculously spared on at least two occasions. In 1791, nitric acid was accidentally spilled on it, yet the image remained unharmed. In 1921, a bomb exploded just under where the tilma hung, yet while the altar was badly damaged in the blast, the tilma didn’t suffer a single scratch.

In the end, those predisposed to doubt will continue to doubt. But for those who believe, the words the Virgin is said to have spoken to Juan Diego are in perfect harmony with the words of comfort she has given scores of faithful over the ages when she appears to them. At the time he saw her, Diego was concerned about the health of an ill uncle he had been attending to. The Virgin consoled him with these words:

Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?

According to legend, the Virgin promised Diego that his uncle would be healed – and he was.

Little wonder, then, that Latino Catholics have such a deep and abiding love for Our Lady of Guadalupe. May we open ourselves to Mary’s endless abundance of maternal love as we walk with her through this Advent season.  

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