Four hundred and eighty-four years ago on this day, the Mother of God appeared in Mexico to the one she loved and whom she called her dearest and youngest son, Juan Diego.
The Nican Mopohua, written in the Aztec language by the Indian scholar Antonio Valeriano around the middle of the sixteenth century, tells how it happened:
On a Saturday just before dawn, he was on his way to pursue divine worship…As he reached the base of the hill known as Tepeyac, came the break of day, and he heard singing atop the hill, resembling singing of varied beautiful birds…He was looking toward the east, on top of the mound, from whence came the precious celestial chant; and then it suddenly ceased and there was silence. He then heard a voice from above the mount saying to him: “Juanito, Juan Dieguito.” Then he ventured and went to where he was called. He was not frightened in the least; on the contrary, overjoyed.
Then he climbed the hill, to see from where he was being called. When he reached the summit, he saw a Lady, who was standing there and told him to come hither. Approaching her presence, he marveled greatly at her superhuman grandeur; her garments were shining like the sun; the cliff where she rested her feet, pierced with glitter, resembling an anklet of precious stones, and the earth sparkled like the rainbow. The mezquites, nopales, and other different weeds, which grow there, appeared like emeralds, their foliage like turquoise, and their branches and thorns glistened like gold. He bowed before her and heard her word, tender and courteous, like someone who charms and esteems you highly.
She speaks to him, and unlike in the apparitions later at Lourdes and Fatima, Our Lady is clear about her identity from the beginning.
She said: “Juanito, the most humble of my sons, where are you going?” He replied: “My Lady and Child, I have to reach your church in Mexico, Tlatilolco, to pursue things divine…” She then spoke to him: “Know for certain, dearest of my sons, that I am the perfect and ever-Virgin Mary, Mother of the true God, the Lord of all things and Master of Heaven and Earth. I ardently desire a temple to be built here, where I will show and offer all my love, compassion, help, and protection to the people and those who look for me. I am your merciful Mother, the Mother of all who live in this land and of all mankind. I will hear the weeping and sorrows of those who love me, cry to me, and have confidence in me, and I will give them consolation and relief. Therefore, so that my designs might be fulfilled, go to the house of the Bishop of Mexico City and tell him that I sent you, and that it is my desire to have a temple built in this place.”
Juan made it to the Bishop’s house, and eventually saw the Bishop, but like any Bishop worth his salt, this one didn’t immediately congratulate the seer on his good fortune at meeting the Blessed Mother—he said he’d take the matter under consideration, and Juan went away sad. He returned to Our Lady for his second visit with her that day and told her of the Bishop’s rebuff.
“I perfectly understood by the manner he replied that he believes it to be an invention of mine…for which I exceedingly beg, Lady and my Child, that you entrust the delivery of your message to someone of importance, well known, respected, and esteemed, so that they may believe in him; because I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf, and you, my Child, the least of my children, my Lady, you send me to a place where I never visit nor repose. Please excuse the great unpleasantness and let not fretfulness befall, my Lady and my All.”
No wonder Our Lady loved Juanito: he’s meek as Moses, yet poetic as David. He is a tail end, a leaf—and she, who at her first appearance as the Mother of God rejoiced that the Almighty would exalt the lowly, had certainly found a lowly son in Juan. Needless to say, she wouldn’t let him off the hook, and he promised to go on the morrow to see the Bishop again.
The rest of the history can briefly told: the next day, December 10, 1531, Juan returned to the Bishop and the Bishop asked for a sign. Our Lady promised Juan to give him the Bishop’s sign the next day, but that next day, December 11, Juan didn’t come for the sign—he was caring for his uncle, whom he’d found gravely ill at home.
December 12 dawned and Juan set out to get the priest to administer the last sacraments to his dying uncle. And in the rush to help his uncle, Juan did what any of us would have done—he avoided the Blessed Mother, because he didn’t want to be rude, but he had important things to accomplish.
He went round the other side of the hill “so he could not be seen by her who sees well everywhere,” but because she does see well everywhere, she didn’t wait for him, but approached and asked where he was going. Explaining his concern for his uncle, he promised to return soon, the next day for certain.
And then, just as we must thank the Bishop for demanding a sign which yielded us a miraculous image of Our Lady, so we must thank St. Juan for avoiding Our Lady – thus prompting, in his worry and fear, words of Our Lady—to us, through him—as lovely as her unfading image:
Hear and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little one:
Let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you.
Let nothing alter your heart or your countenance.
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 that you need?
Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.
Do not be afflicted by the illness of your uncle, who will not die now of it. Be assured that he is now cured.”
Last year, when this feast of St. Juan Diego came around, I noticed the wonderful window between his feast and hers, between December 9 and December 12, between her initial appearances to him and the day she gave him a sign. And seeing this window, there was nothing to do but climb through it so that I could spend time with the Mother of God and her humble servant Juanito.Our Lady then sent Juan to pick roses – out of season, for it was winter – and he found abundant roses the likes of which he’d never seen before: colorful Castilian roses which were familiar to the Spanish Bishop and the answer to his own previous prayers to Our Lady. And then, in the surprise ending which attracts millions of pilgrims in a steady stream to see Juan’s “incorrupt” tilma hanging in Mexico City, Juan dropped the roses before the Bishop and revealed Our Lady’s image on his cloak.
Life rushes by so quickly, the liturgical year included, that no sooner has a feast come then it’s gone again, gone for another year before we’ve had time to catch our breath, let alone take in the meaning of the day.
But this delightful triduum that brings us from December 9 to December 12 seems to me the antidote to our hurry and our fears. Our Lady herself couldn’t rush Juan, and the consequence is an opportunity to imitate both of them—by pondering in our hearts, like Our Blessed Mother did, by pondering her words to him, as Juan must have done.
And so last year at this time I came up with the idea of a triduum in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a kind of mini-novena, a chance to accompany Juan in his days with Our Blessed Mother. The plan is simple: Read Our Lady of Guadalupe’s words (“Hear, and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little one…”) each day from today, St. Juan Diego’s day, to Saturday, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. You will notice in these words that she asks us only…to trust her! And if you miss a day, that’s fitting—Juan did too.
As we begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy, here is a chance to discover at the outset what Mercy is all about. At Cana Our Lady said, “Do whatever He tells you,” and at the Last Supper He said, “Let not your hearts be troubled or afraid.” So whether you listen to Mercy Himself, or His Merciful Mother, the message is the same: there is no more need to worry. She’s got us covered (with her mantle), we are in her arms and heart, and she means every word she says.