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A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. – Revelation 12:1
St. Luke is well-known as a gospel writer, but an age-old tradition also holds that he was the first iconographer of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Various ancient icons claim provenance from his paintbrush, such as the famous Salus Populi Romani as well as the Black Madonna of Czestochowa which is said to have been painted on a panel that came from a table used by the Holy Family. Yet, even if it could be proven true that St. Luke painted these images himself, these portraits of Mary pale in comparison with one well-known portrait not painted by human hands, but by the divine: the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe.
Every year, tens of thousands of pilgrims journey to the capital of Mexico in humble supplication before this heavenly image, miraculously imprinted on the cloak of Juan Diego in 1531. Nearly 500 years later, the tilma – made of the fiber of coarse-woven cactus which would normally decompose after two decades – still evades corruption. The colors remain vibrant and the image captivating.
What do we see when we look at this image?
There is a woman in indigenous dress. Her head is bowed; her eyes cast downward toward us. She wears a mantle over her head and shoulders, and it is of deep turquoise – the color of royalty. Her robe is lined with gold and studded with stars, a symbol of the heavens. The woman is with child. She stands upon a crescent moon in front of the sun, reminiscent of the Lady in the book of Revelation whose child was “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod” (Rev 12:5). At Tepeyac, she speaks to Juan Diego in his native tongue, saying: “I am the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of the True, living God.” When later asked to identify the woman, Juan Diego explained in his Aztecan dialect that she was “Te Coatlazopeuh” – “she who crushes the serpent” (see Gen 3:15).
The image of La Virgen reminds us of the fundamental victory in her Son, Jesus Christ. He is the true God, under whose reign, life and liberty prevail. In the decade following the apparitions at Guadalupe, nearly nine million natives of Mexico converted to Christianity through the power of the image of Our Lady. Under the tender gaze of “Te Coatlazopeuh,” the Aztecan practice of human sacrifices came to a decisive end, and the peoples came to know the one true God – a God of life, not of death.
Archbishop José Gómez has said, “The Church in this country, and every one of us, has the responsibility to continue the task that the Virgin gave to St. Juan Diego: to ‘build a shrine’ with our lives. To build a society that glorifies God and is worthy of the dignity of the human person.” The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe - Patroness of the Americas, Star of the New Evangelization, and the Protector of the Unborn - is a presence of hope, a light in the darkness, calling us to build a civilization of love and freedom here in the America.
Sr. Theresa Marie Chau Nguyen, O.P., Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston and a Dominican Sister of Mary Immaculate Province.
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