Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Today's holiday is a Catholic one observed in Mexico. December 12 is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Our Lady of Guadalupe (a/k/a/ the Virgin of Guadalupe) is a 16th century Roman Catholic Mexican icon depicting an apparition of the Virgin Mary. It is Mexico's most beloved religious and cultural image. December 12 commemorates the traditional account of her appearances to Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin from December 9, 1531 through December 12, 1531.

Juan Diego was a poor Native American named Cuauhtlatohuac who had been baptized and given the name Juan Diego. He was a 57-year-old widower and lived in a small village near Mexico City. On December 9, 1531, he was on his way to a nearby barrio to attend Mass.

As he was walking by a hill called Tepeyac, he heard beautiful music, and a radiant cloud appeared. Within the cloud was a young maiden dressed like an Aztec princess. She spoke to him in his own language and told him to go to the bishop and tell him to build a chapel in the place where she appeared.

The bishop wanted a sign. The lady told Juan Diego to gather flowers from a hill (at a time of the year when no flowers usually grow), and he went there and found Spanish roses. He gathered them in his tilma [cape] and took them to the bishop. When he his tilma, the roses fell to the ground and the bishop sank to his knees. On the tilma there was an image of Mary as she had appeared at the hill of Tepeyac. It was December 12, 1531.

This image was on cloth that should have deteriorated in 20 years but shows no sign of decay 476 years later. There has been much controversy about its origins, but many believe it still defies all scientific explanations. It is compared to the Shroud of Turin.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a cultural symbol of significant importance to the Mexican identity. In Mexico she is known as "La Virgen Morena", which means "The brown-skinned Virgin". In 1910 she was declared Patroness of Latin America, and in 1945 Pope Pius XII declared Her to be the Empress of all the Americas.

Some historians speculate the icon was meant to represent both the Virgin Mary and the indigenous Mexican goddess Tonantzin, giving the Spanish a way to gain converts among the indigenous people, or it may have provided a method for those Mexicans to covertly practice their native religion. Whatever it was, it led to the biggest conversion in church history, with over 9 million natives converting to Christianity from 1531 to 1541.

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most important dates in the Mexican calendar. On this day, thousands from around the country make the pilgrimage to the Basílica of Guadalupe, in Mexico City, where the miraculous image of the Virgin is kept. Although the most important rituals and celebrations take place at the Basílica de Guadalupe, there are fiestas all over the country in Honor of Mexico's Patron Saint.


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