I have written of becoming a mother of God, through hearing the Word and obeying the Father. This is a great privilege, a holy labor, an abundant joy.
Yet it is nothing like being the Mother of God, the Holy Virgin. I know that I shall never become like her – I am nowhere close.
It has been said that Jesus told us that we can all be His mother and sisters and brothers because He wanted to make it clear that the essential relationship lie not in biological ties. Rather, the spiritual bond – the profound intimacy of being brought into Jesus’ union with the Father and the Spirit – is the true blessing.
And so it is.
The reason I can say I will never be like the Holy Mother of God is because I will never be as completely obedient as she was, as completely giving of my entire self to God.
I have already failed that test. And yet I do not despair.
What is so incredibly beautiful is that we have been given Holy Mary to be part of our family too. Because of what she gave, she carried the Lord God within her – not just physically in her womb, but in the depths of her heart.
She is “Theotokos” not just because she gave birth to Jesus in time, as incredibly important as that was, but because she brings Him to birth throughout time, in all parts of the world, in every race and culture.
It is for this reason that we can rightfully portray the Madonna in art with any racial features – or rather with all racial features – because she is Mother of all.
At one time, all of this seemed very strange to me and I had a difficult time understanding what seemed to me an almost cult-like devotion to the Virgin that I saw in some countries. And certainly, as with any matter of faith, there may be people who slip into the extremes, innocently or not so innocently, and for many reasons.
But the Virgin Mary is given to us to help and protect us. We must never forget that the war of the spirit rages around us and within us – and we cannot fight it alone.
The Theotokos has been given many designations that tell us how very important she is in our Christian life, e.g. Mother of Mercy, Help of Christians, Refuge of Sinners, Seat of Wisdom, Cause of Our Joy and Queen of Peace, among many others.
The Holy Virgin has also been known by the places where she has appeared to humble believers. While some of these appearances may be controversial, some are utterly awesome in their nature and impact.
Today (December 12), we in the Western Church celebrate one such appearance of the Holy Lady to a peasant named Juan Diego. The year was 1531, the place was Mexico.
In the event that you are not familiar with the account (or would like to hear it again), I have narrated it and will reprint the text below, before commenting further.
Text: From a report by Don Antonio Valeriano, a Native American author of the sixteenth century
At daybreak one Saturday morning in 1531, on the very first days of the month of December, an Indian named Juan Diego was going from the village where he lived to Tlatelolco in order to take part in divine worship and listen to God’s commandments. When he came near the hill called Tepeyac, dawn had already come, and Juan Diego heard someone calling him from the very top of the hill: “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.”
He went up the hill and caught sight of a lady of unearthly grandeur whose clothing was as radiant as the sun. She said to him in words both gentle and courteous: “Juanito, the humblest of my children, know and understand that I am the ever virgin Mary, Mother of the true God through whom all things live. It is my ardent desire that a church be erected here so that in it I can show and bestow my love, compassion, help, and protection to all who inhabit this land and to those others who love me, that they might call upon and confide in me. Go to the Bishop of Mexico to make known to him what I greatly desire. Go and put all your efforts into this.”
When Juan Diego arrived in the presence of the Bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, a Franciscan, the latter did not seem to believe Juan Diego and answered: “Come another time, and I will listen at leisure.”
Juan Diego returned to the hilltop where the Heavenly Lady was waiting, and he said to her: “My Lady, my maiden, I presented your message to the Bishop, but it seemed that he did not think it was the truth. For this reason I beg you to entrust your message to someone more illustrious who might convey it in order that they may believe it, for I am only an insignificant man.”
She answered him: “Humblest of my sons, I ask that tomorrow you again go to see the Bishop and tell him that I, the ever virgin holy Mary, Mother of God, am the one who personally sent you.”
But on the following day, Sunday, the Bishop again did not believe Juan Diego and told him that some sign was necessary so that he could believe that it was the Heavenly Lady herself who sent him. And then he dismissed Juan Diego.
On Monday Juan Diego did not return. His uncle, Juan Bernardino, became very ill, and at night asked Juan to go to Tlatelolco at daybreak to call a priest to hear his confession.
Juan Diego set out on Tuesday, but he went around the hill and passed on the other side, toward the east, so as to arrive quickly in Mexico City and to avoid being detained by the Heavenly Lady. But she came out to meet him on that side of the hill and said to him: “Listen and understand, my humblest son. There is nothing to frighten and distress you. Do not let your heart be troubled, and let nothing upset you. Is it not I, your Mother, who is here? Are you not under my protection? Are you not, fortunately, in my care? Do not let your uncle’s illness distress you. It is certain that he has already been cured. Go up to the hilltop, my son, where you will find flowers of various kinds. Cut them, and bring them into my presence.”
When Juan Diego reached the peak, he was astonished that so many Castilian roses had burst forth at a time when the frost was severe. He carried the roses in the folds of his tilma (mantle) to the Heavenly Lady. She said to him: “My son, this is the proof and the sign which you will bring to the Bishop so that he will see my will in it. You are my ambassador, very worthy of trust.”
Juan Diego set out on his way, now content and sure of succeeding. On arriving in the Bishop’s presence, he told him: “My lord, I did what you asked. The Heavenly Lady complied with your request and fulfilled it. She sent me to the hilltop to cut some Castilian roses and told me to bring them to you in person. And this I am doing, so that you can see in them the sign you seek in order to carry out her will. Here they are; receive them.”
He immediately opened up his white mantle, and as all the different Castilian roses scattered to the ground, there was drawn on the cloak and suddenly appeared the precious image of the ever virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the same manner as it is today and is kept in her shrine of Tepeyac.
The whole city was stirred and came to see and admire her venerable image and to offer prayers to her; and following the command which the same Heavenly Lady gave to Juan Bernardino when she restored him to health, they called her by the name that she herself had used: “the ever virgin holy Mary of Guadalupe.”
There are a number of things about this appearance that are utterly amazing and deeply moving. One is that the “heavenly Lady” spoke to Juan Diego in his native language and insisted on speaking through this most humble but faithful man.
The image she left of herself on his mantle showed her in Aztec clothing, using symbols that could be readily understood by the Aztec people. A shrine was built on the hill where she requested it and, within 7 years, approximately 9 million Aztecs were converted to the faith.
The image she left has many remarkable qualities and it seems to be essentially indestructible. A strong nitric acid solvent was accidentally spilled on a large part of the image in the late 18th century and it “self-restored” over the next month. In 1921, a bomber placed 20 sticks of dynamite before the tilma in its glass case. Virtually everything around it was destroyed, including a marble altar rail, but the tilma and its case remained intact.
Fascinating studies have been done of the image, revealing things that seem impossible – if we were not believers. For example, it has many qualities that are very much like a human body (it maintains a temperature of 98.6 F).
However, more important than these fascinating details is that there is an enormously powerful truth among us.
It is called the Kingdom of God.
And its presence was made possible because one young woman, a humble virgin, said “yes” and gave all, out of loving obedience.
She is our Mother. May we accept her loving help as we learn to be mothers of God, each in our own little way.