The First Lady of Guadalupe

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Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Left: the image carved by St Luke. Right: the image miraculously impressed on the tilma of San Juan Diego.

A chapter from the book soon to be published Guadalupe: A River of Light

This thread through history begins with the Immaculate Conception and continues through the great Apostolic Age and beyond. The story was hidden until St Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (1474-1548) a humble Chichimeca Indian met the Blessed Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill, almost five centuries ago. The tilma of St Juan Diego bearing the miraculous image appears in history in what is now Mexico, the morning of December 12, 1531, almost forty years after Columbus set foot in the American continent and about ten years after the conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortez.[1]   The man whose destiny was to be the conqueror of Mexico was born in Spain, most precisely in Medellin, in a city located in the province of Badajoz in the region of Extremadura. About sixty miles northeast from his birthplace lay the town of Guadalupe in the province of Caceres. There are various possible etymologies for the name of Guadalupe, one of the most likely is derived from the original Roman name Flumen Lux Speculum – meaning “a river reflecting light” – a name that the Mozarab settlers may have mispronounced and finally passed into Spanish as Rio Guadalupejo with the first two syllables being the remnant of the Arabic word for river: wadi.[2] In this first chapter we are going very quickly through thousands of years of history covering some relevant events from the early days of Christianity to the end of the Middle Ages in Spain, and then some of the history of the New World before the arrival of the first Europeans. It is only a bird’s eye view but I promise you that going through all that history is going to pay off wonderfully because every stage of the story is going to be opened in the subsequent chapters. In the end, I hope you will see very clearly the hand of God working in history. The grand parable that will unfold is something so spectacular that only God in his mighty power could have done it. In the center of that grand parable is humble Mary of Nazareth, the greatest woman that will ever live.

Saint Luke the artist

The town of Guadalupe is home to one of the great treasures of Christianity, an image of the Virgin Mary holding the Child that according to ancient Christian traditions was carved by St Luke, the author of the Gospel that bears his name. St Luke’s original name may have been Lucanus; we know he was born in Antioch of Syria and it is likely that he studied medicine in Tarsus. In Colossians 4:14 St Paul calls him “the beloved physician.” Through Nicaphorus Callistus (14th century), and the Menology of Basil II (10th century) we know he was also a painter.

The Catholic Encyclopedia declares: “A picture of the Virgin in Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, is ascribed to him and can be traced to A.D. 847 it is probably a copy of that mentioned by Theodore Lector, in the sixth century. This writer states that the Empress Eudoxia found a picture of the Mother of God at Jerusalem, which she sent to Constantinople (see “Acta SS.” of 18 October). As Plummer observes, it is certain that St. Luke was an artist, at least to the extent that his graphic descriptions of the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Shepherds. Presentation, the Shepherd and lost sheep, etc., have become the inspiring and favorite themes of Christian painters.” [3]

From all the information we have about St Luke we can safely deduct that he was Greek, a convert to Judaism who later accepted Christianity. He was also a dedicated evangelist who traveled with St Paul and St Mark.[4]   The brief prolog found in Luke 1:1-4 shows that he was dedicated to accurately preserve the truth of the Gospel researching the facts from very early witnesses.

“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”[5]

The Gospel According to St Luke is often called “the Gospel of Mary” and it is certain that Luke had the opportunity to know and interview Mary of Nazareth while she was living in Ephesus.

The early Christian traditions in Europe talk of many paintings and sculptures of Our Lady attributed to St Luke. The amazing story of Our Lady of Guadalupe begins with an image that was buried with him when he died. In De Viris Illustribus[6] St. Jerome reports “his bones and relics are buried in Constantinople, transferred there along with those of the Apostle Andrew.”[7]

St Luke died in Thebes in the Bœotia region of ancient Greece at the age of seventy-four.[8]   A statuette representing the Virgin and Child – carved by Luke himself – was buried with him.

To Constantinople and Rome

The coffin containing the remains of St Luke was transferred to Constantinople by order of the Roman Emperor Flavius Julius Constantius Augustus in a. D. 357. The Italian historian Flavio Ciucani – author of Il Segreto negli Occhi di Maria. Da Nazareth a Guadalupe – affirms: “With a great procession the coffin containing the remains of St Luke went into the Church escorted by all the imperial court. Leading them was Macedonius, the Bishop of Constantinople. He held the statuette above his head as the procession continued along the central nave.”[9]

Mauritius (a. D. 539-590) Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire gave the image to future Pope Gregory the Great in a. D 582. At that time Gregory was the Papal Ambassador to the imperial court in Constantinople. When Gregory returned to Rome in 582 the statuette went with him.

About that time Rome suffered a terrible epidemic that caused the death of many, among them Pope Pelagius II. Gregory was elected Pope. This is the same Gregory who is now known as St Gregory the Great. He ordered the people to recite the litanies and took the miraculous image of Our Lady in procession. This was no other than the image of Our Lady that Pope Gregory had kept in his private oratory until that day. While the procession was crossing Rome the people heard a choir of angels singing praises to the Virgin Mary saying:

“Queen of Heaven, rejoice, for He whom you did merit to bear, has risen, as he said.”

After the singing one angel appeared over the building now known as Castel Sant’Angelo, wiping the blood off his sword.[10]   After that, the plague ceased and St Gregory gratefully grew in his devotion to Our Lady’s image.

A few years later Gregory sent several relics to the Archbishop of Seville, St Leander who had worked tirelessly to eradicate the Arian heresy. Among those relics was St Luke’s statuette of the Virgin and Child.

A storm endangered the ship while the statuette was traveling by sea from Rome to Seville. At that point, a priest took the image onto the ship’s deck and begged piously to Our Lady to end the tempest. His prayer was immediately answered and so they could safely reach Seville. St Leander, Bishop of Seville and a friend of Pope Gregory received the image in person. The image was later enthroned in the Cathedral of Seville where it was fervently venerated by the local Christians.

In a. D. 711, Seville came under attack by Muslim forces. Some of the local Christians escaped the city towards the north of Spain, following the Via Lusitana carrying the precious relic. As they approached the region now known as Extremadura they buried the image in a mountainous area near a stream we know today as the Guadalupe River. Along with the image, there was documentation identifying the statue’s origin and other relics as well. The Image was to remain buried there six centuries.

Buried and found again

In the summer of 1329 when the Christian reconquest of Spain was almost completed, and King Alfonso XI reigned in Castile, a Christian settler named Gil Cordero was tending to his cattle in the area of the Guadalupe River. When Gil realized that one of his cows was missing he went in search of the animal. After three days he found it dead on a place near the river. Disappointed by the loss he decided to skin the dead cow to save the leather. As he unsheathed his knife the animal came back to life before his very eyes. Instantly the figure of a woman bathed in light appeared floating above him. The woman then spoke saying:

“Do not be afraid. I am the Mother of God the Savior of the human race. Take your cow and return it to the pen with the others and then return home. Tell the priests what you have seen. Tell them also that you are sent to them on my behalf. They must come to this place where you are now and dig where the dead cow was; under these stones, you will find an image of mine. When they unearth it tell them not to take it away nor move it away. They must erect a chapel for it. In time a great church, a noble house, and a great people will grow around this place.”

Obediently Gil Cordero walked to Caceres and related to the authorities what he had seen but no one believed in him. When he arrived home perturbed by all the things he had experienced, he found his wife in the company of some neighbors and religious, crying because their son had just died. The poor man looking at the lifeless body of his son remembered how the Virgin Mary had resurrected his cow. Without further reflection he knelt, and trusting wholeheartedly in Our Lady with sincere devotion he begged:

“My Lady, you know the message that I am bringing on your behalf, I believe it to be true that you brought this about: that my son is dead because in this way you will show how marvelous you are in bringing him back to life so that this message of yours that I was sent to deliver will be believed quickly. If that is so, my Lady, I beg you to resurrect him. Here and from now on I offer him to you, to be your perpetual servant in the place where you gave me the grace of appearing before me.”

His sincere prayer seemed to go unanswered. The clergy prayed, and finally, the body of his son was taken to the cemetery. On the way there the child sat erect in the coffin and begged his father to take him to the Mountain of Guadalupe so that he might give thanks to the Blessed Virgin for restoring his life. The miracle happened in the presence of so many witnesses, confirming to all that Gil Cordero was telling the truth about the apparition of our Lady. Gil addressed the crowd with words of faith:

“My lords and friends, please know that this had to happen so you can put faith in the message that I bring. Our Lady has given us the grace to perform this great marvel since due to our sin often we doubt those things we cannot contemplate with our own senses.”

The story of that prodigy traveled quickly and reached those who had not believed at first. The authorities were now convinced that something supernatural had occurred. They followed Gil to the place by the river and unearthed a marble box containing the image of Our Lady, along with other relics, and some documents relating the origin and history of the statuette, from the time when it was carved by St Luke, until the time when it was buried by the men of Seville.

 

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Our Lady of Guadalupe in Extremadura

In the box, they found the wooden image of our Lady, along with documents stating the date of its concealment, more than six hundred years before. They also found an ancient bell, the relics of the siblings of St Leander and St Isidore: St Fulgentius and St Florentine.[11]   The clergy and people thought of returning to town with the image, but Gil Cordero alleged that they could not disobey the instructions of the Virgin Mary. Everyone agreed and they built a temporary chapel to house the image. Pilgrims who visit the monastery today can still see the rough stone altar upon which the statue rested. Gil Cordero and his family remained near the humble sanctuary that we now know as the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The prophecy of Our Lady was fulfilled. The kings of Spain and Portugal and their nobility traveled in pilgrimage often to that sacred place, Spain grew strong around it growing from a loose confederation of Christian fiefdoms into a great Christian country under one crown. Spain became a great empire spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ all over the world. The Spanish Church produced some of the great saints: St Teresa de Avila, St John of the Cross, St Ignatius Loyola, St Dominic of Guzman, St Joseph of Calasanz, St Angela of the Cross, St Vincent Ferrer, St Francis Xavier, and so many others, too long a list to complete here.

Guadalupe and the kings of Spain

In time King Alfonso XI visited the humble chapel and ordered it to be enlarged so that it would become a temple worthy of the precious relics there contained. Gradually a town began to grow around the sanctuary. Since those days the fame of Guadalupe extended far outside Spain. Since the foundation of the village of Guadalupe, it became a tradition for the Kings of Castile to visit the place. The Habsburgs did not break that pious royal custom that was later interrupted to be started again by King Alfonso XIII. King Enrique IV of Castile and his mother Queen Maria of Aragon are buried in the monastery.

From the time of its foundation, the Mother of God did not cease to bless the sanctuary of Guadalupe with many graces. Many great men and women of Spain, including the royal families, found rest and encouragement there to continue the expansion of the Empire. It would be impossible to list all of the noble pilgrims that visited the place but we can list a few. When his wise minister Don Alvaro de Luna died, King Juan II took one of the monks in the monastery as his counselor. Maria de Aragon and Enrique IV had a monk from Guadalupe as their confessor, Father Cabañuelas who had experienced one of the most spectacular Eucharistic miracles of that age.

The lives of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon are very connected with Guadalupe. She visited the monastery many times, always seeking St Mary’s protection and guidance. Isabella gave orders that her royal testament to be kept there forever. King Ferdinand died there years after his life was miraculously spared by the intercession of the Virgin Mary when he was attacked in Barcelona in 1492.

The whole of Spain was integrated politically as a nation during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. Religious unity was also completed after the fall of Granada, and the conquest followed by the first evangelization of the Americas.

Through the faithful prayers of the monks in the monastery, Isabella devotedly trusted to Our Blessed Mother the final military campaign against the Moors. Once the city was conquered she send a grateful letter to the monks of Guadalupe. Later both King and Queen visited the sanctuary on June 9 of 1492 to give thanks to God for the victory.

On June 20 of 1488 royal letters were signed giving Juan de Peñalosa the authority to commission three vessels and their crews under Christopher Columbus to find a western passage to India. Queen Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon received Columbus there. After the last great battle of the Reconquest – when the last of the Muslim enclaves was recovered – the royal couple came to Guadalupe to rest and venerate the image; at various times Christopher Columbus did the same.

In 1492 as the last of the Moors were being expelled from Spain, Columbus’ expedition departed from the port of Palos in Andalusia. Our Lady of Guadalupe saved the mission when the small fleet had to face a very fierce storm in the Azores. In the midst of that terrible tempest, the Admiral and crew entrusted their salvation to her, making solemn vows they drew lots to determine who would make a special pilgrimage to her sanctuary. The sacred obligation fell on Columbus himself who fulfilled the promise promptly when they arrived safely in Spain. For that reason, Columbus gave the name Guadalupe to the first island they discovered.

On July 29, 1496, Columbus symbolically consecrated all the spiritual first fruits of the New World by bringing two American natives to the sanctuary. Both were baptized in front of the image carved by St Luke fourteen centuries earlier.

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Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe – Choir of the Monastery of Guadalupe, Spain

Christopher Columbus

The Americas remained hidden from the rest of the world up until the arrival of Columbus and the first Spanish explorers on October 12, 1492.

There were previous encounters between Europeans and Americans but contacts between Native Americans and other peoples were very rare or infrequent until that morning of October 12, 1492, when Admiral Columbus set foot for the first time on what he called Hispaniola Island.

We must make a pause in our story to take a look at this man, Christopher Columbus, whose historical figure becomes more and more important as years go by. Cristóforo Colombo – that was his original name – was a native of Genoa. That city in northern Italy had been for many centuries home to famous bankers, traders, shipbuilders, and sailors.

Some historians claim that Columbus was a member of a devout Jewish family converted to Christianity. His name seems to confirm that. In those days, converts from Judaism used to take some particular names (from trees, birds, or their specific trade) to indicate where they were coming from and, therefore, to be able to recognize each other after their conversion.

“Colombo” means “dove” in many Italian dialects – that is also the name of the Prophet Jonah[12] – while Christopher means “the Christ-bearer.” That is also St. Christopher’s name, a very popular saint with Genoese sailors and tradesmen.

The Offerus connection

It is widely claimed that the saints we select to bless our baptism and confirmation imprint some of their virtues on our souls. This seems to be especially true regarding Christopher Columbus. In those days, St. Christopher was the patron saint of travelers.

As the legend goes St Christopher was a very strong man from Canaan who was looking to serve the greatest of all masters. Having learned that Christ was the greatest of them all, Offerus – as he was called before becoming a Christian – came upon a holy man, and asked him where he could find Christ. The holy man taught him to use his strength to perform works of mercy since the best way to serve Christ is to serve others. He instructed Offerus to go and find out some broad, deep river, with a swift current that men could not cross. Offerus found a suitable river and dedicated his strength to help those who struggled to cross, carrying on his broad shoulders the weak and the small. Offerus built a hut on the bank of that river and dwelled there. Whenever someone tried to cross the stream, Offerus helped him. The legend tells us that one night, as he was resting, he heard a voice, like that of a weak child, saying: “Offerus, will you help me cross?” He went to the bank of the river, but he could find no one. Three times he heard the mysterious call and searched until he came upon a little child, who begged him: “Offerus carry me over!” He lifted the child and began to cross the river but as he crossed the winds blew fiercely, and the water rose, roaring in his ears as if he was crossing a storm in the wide ocean. The weight on his shoulders increased more and more until he thought he would go under. He held his staff and finally reached the other shore placing the child safely on the firm ground.

“What have I carried?” cried the exhausted Offerus. “It could not have been heavier if it had been the whole world!” Then he heard the child’s answer “You wished to serve me and I have chosen you as my servant. You have carried the king of the whole world. So that you may know who I am, please fix your staff on the ground.” Offerus did as instructed. Out of the bare staff sprang leaves and clusters of dates. That is how Offerus knew that it was Christ whom he had carried thus becoming Christopher, the Christ bearer.[13]

It is quite an amazing coincidence that Columbus should have in his name the evidence of the Holy Spirit, traditionally represented as a dove, and that he – Christopher – should have been entrusted to carry Christ across the Atlantic. Indeed, it is remarkable that his flagship should be the Santa Maria thus named after the Mother of God. That ship was bound to remain in the Americas since Columbus ordered it dismantled to build a small fort that he called Santa Trinidad (Holy Trinity) in honor of God Himself.

Symbolically, Columbus brought in Mary, Jesus and the Holy Trinity to America and left them as a seed for the faith of future generations. A replica of St Luke’s carved image of the Virgin Mother and Child went always with Columbus in his travels. After being buried for nearly seven-hundred years the image Our Lady of Guadalupe thus traveled in space and time from the original grave of St Luke in Thebes, to Constantinople, Rome, Seville, Guadalupe in Extremadura, and with Christopher Columbus to the newly discovered American continent. A great adventure of the faith was afoot.

The Native World

The New World that Columbus opened up to the Europeans was for many centuries cut off from the Old World. In 1492 Europe was entering the Modern Age, while the Americas were still for the most part in the Stone Age. Yet, the clash of these two big civilizations had such important implications that even today – five centuries later – there are many things we are struggling to understand.

Both the Aztec Empire in Mexico and the Inca Empire in Peru could not have existed without the high numbers of people needed to run such complex societies. There is an obvious difference between the population of the Americas at the time of the discovery and the low population density at the time of the arrival of the European settlers. Cortez and Pizarro conquered very large territories for Spain with small armies of just a few hundred men. Once the natives were subdued, the Spanish crown never needed a standing army to keep the peace. That peace lasted from the early 16th century to the American wars of independence that, for the most part, broke out in the 18th century. Until very recently Historians estimated rather low population figures for all of the Americas around the time of the discovery but that estimation is being challenged now. In all likelihood, we will never know the exact number; but a rough guess puts it at several dozen million, probably in the vicinity of one hundred million. That was approximately the population of Europe at the time.

How do we arrive at these numbers? First, we have two large empires, the Aztec Empire in Mexico and the Inca Empire in present-day Peru and Bolivia. We do not have exact population figures but we can calculate the approximate number of people needed to run those systems. As for the rest of the continent, countless tribes inhabited it. To the south and towards the north of Mexico, organized confederations were beginning to crop up, building enormous cities which disappeared a few decades after the Europeans first arrived. Again, the total number of inhabitants outside the organized empires is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, the low and high estimates seem to indicate that the population outside the organized entities was relatively high, perhaps comparable to their contemporary European populations. The fact remains that only a century or so after the discovery those populations had been nearly extinguished and entire cultures had disappeared from the face of the earth. How this disappearance came to happen a fascinating mystery.

In his book 1491, journalist Charles C. Mann writes: “Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought – an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact.” [14]

To get an idea of how important the disappeared American civilizations were in the 16th century, we can take a look at the size and functionality of their cities. Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, had running water and waste water systems. The streets were a model of cleanliness and tidiness maintained by a small force of organized workers. The citizens of Tenochtitlan lived in a much healthier and cleaner environment than did the king of France, whom centuries later had the Versailles palace built without a single toilet. In those years, for that matter, the world’s biggest city was not Rome or Paris or London: it was Tenochtitlan and all over the continent there were – before the arrival of the Europeans – some huge cities. We are just beginning to discover some of those ruins: Cahokia, Calakmul, and many others.

Available to us there are reports by Hernan Cortez, Francisco Pizarro, and other explorers who got to see these vast empires in their last days. Many of them were astonished at the grandeur and vitality of these urban centers. Contrary to what is widely believed, the Spanish conquerors did not destroy these cities in order to seize their treasures. While certainly there was sacking and mistreatment, most damage done by Europeans was completely unintentional. Four centuries had to pass before scientists like Jenner and Pasteur created the science of microbiology so that we could understand the invisible forces that swept away America’s indigenous nations.

The French explorer René Robert Sieur De La Salle left us a clue of what happened to some of those huge urban centers. He traveled in 1682 through the same Mississippi area that Hernando De Soto had explored a hundred years before. De Soto had not been able to establish a colony in that part of the world since it was “full of a large number of fenced villages and many well-trained archers.”

A century later, La Salle found the ruins of those villages but they were no longer inhabited. The civilizations that had supported them just two generations before had vanished leaving the cities intact. De Soto had a chance to see a few cities like Cahokia from the relative safety of the rafts he used to explore the Mississippi. He saw the cities intact and active, packed with people and heavily guarded. What happened in the years following his visit is one of the saddest chapters in American history.

The century of death

When Columbus left the island of Hispaniola in 1492, he also left one of his sailors who had fallen ill and died of the pox. The effect of European diseases on the American population was going to be monumentally more devastating than anything that could have affected the Europeans.

In the following years, the pigs that Hernando de Soto had left behind in Georgia, a French sailor suffering from viral hepatitis who was shipwrecked off the Massachusetts shores, and many other sources of infection added to Columbus’ first visit, casting a dark mantle of pestilence and death which – according even to conservative estimations – annihilated nearly ninety percent of the American population.

Now there is evidence available of how the epidemic diseases spread from the Caribbean progressing in waves westward, northward and southward. Pestilence made the conquest of the Americas easier for the Europeans. When the conquest of America by the various European powers began, the Americas were practically defenseless, her warriors were dead long before they could offer any resistance to the invaders; many native nations perished entirely, others fell into irreversible social disorder. The survivors could not repel invaders that were not only technologically superior but whom also unwittingly carried with them deadly diseases for which the natives had no natural immunity.

When Francisco Pizarro reached Cajamarca in Peru in the year of 1531 a pox epidemic had already swept through the Inca Empire, killing approximately twenty percent of the population in a few years. There are strong reasons to believe this was the consequence of the 1492 contact in Hispaniola.

Among the victims were Huayno Capac, the Inca and his heir Ninan Coyuchui. The resulting power vacuum brought about a civil war between Atahualpa and Huascar – both likely heirs to the throne – adding to the hardships of the population that have barely survived the plague. Just a few days after overcoming his enemies and consolidating the kingdom’s peace, Atahualpa learned about Pizarro’s landing. By December of 1531, the Incas no longer ruled their vast empire. The end came rapidly to those civilizations that had thrived in South America for so many centuries. At their height, they ruled from Ecuador to the south of Chile, from the Peruvian shores of the Pacific to the edge of the great Amazonian basin in what is now Bolivia and Brazil.

Had it not been for the diseases, which weakened all of the American societies without exception, the conquest of America would have been as impossible as the full conquest of China or Japan. History would have been entirely different. The Spanish, French, and English who would eventually settle down in America, could do so because the native societies had been undermined by successive waves of smallpox, diphtheria, influenza, and other maladies, some of which still exist today. These facts seem to indicate that the original population of the Americas was indeed much higher before the discovery. It was the European diseases what decimated the aboriginal population. As the Europeans began to arrive in earnest – about a century after the first contact – they found a nearly empty continent. Yet, that was not the way it was before the discovery.

In December 1531 – at the same time when Pizarro consolidated his conquest of Peru – at the other end of the American continent, the bishop of Mexico got a surprising report: The Virgin Mary had appeared to a modest native called Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin on Tepeyac hill near Tenochtitlan. A series of remarkable miracles confirmed the apparition. This miracle was followed by thousands of conversions among the natives and about nine million American Christians were received into the Church in the years to follow. The conversions span the territories extending from California to the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Thus began the evangelization of America guided by Mary of Nazareth.

When the English settlers came to Massachusetts in 1620 they found the coastal aboriginal populations completely decimated by the plague. That was probably viral hepatitis caught from a Frenchman that survived a shipwreck off the coast of Cape Cod and was rescued by the natives. That was a small example of the devastation that European diseases had brought on the ancient Native American world. A new age was dawning on the Americas as the ancient native nations faded into oblivion, fatally wounded by foreign diseases.

The blood of sacrifices

Let us leave for a moment this year of 1531, which ends with the conquest of Peru and the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Mexico. We shall go back to the year of 1398, one hundred and thirty years before the Virgin’s apparition on Tepeyac Hill. In that particular year, a child was born who was destined to be prominent in the history of the Aztecs. Someone unknown to many of us but very important in the history of pre-Columbian Mexico: Tlecaellel, the architect of the Aztec empire. He dedicated the last reconstruction of the High Temple in Tenochtitlan; Tlecaellel brought the Aztec nation to the height of its power. The High Temple was dedicated in 1484 with a high number of human sacrifices. The Aztec historian Quauhtlehuanitzin says about him:

“There were many great, awe-inspiring kings and warriors among those peoples, near and far and all over the world. But the most courageous and distinguished of them all in the nation was the great captain, the great warrior Tlecaellel. It was he who ordered the worship of the Huitzilopochtli, the demon god of the Mexicas.”

Tlecaellel was the organizer and founder of the Aztec empire that Cortez would discover a hundred years later. Tlecaellel lived for almost a century and during that period of time, he implemented a master plan to strengthen the power of the Aztec emperors among the peoples in the region. He himself refused to be an emperor and chose instead to be the power behind the throne. He turned down the proposal to be a crowned king by saying: “I am already a king.” In promoting a large number of sacrifices to the demon Huitzilopochtli, he set off a series of regional wars with the only purpose of capturing victims for the sacrifices he would offer up “like hot bread fresh from the oven, soft and delicious.” At the age of thirty-one in 1429, he emerged as a mighty military leader and appointed the three kings of the Triple Alliance by his own power. Indeed, he was the empire’s true ruler for seventy-seven years.

Perhaps the most macabre time in the macabre life of Tlecaellel occurred in 1487 when he was eighty-nine years old. In that year, the great pyramidal temple of Huitzilopochtli was built right in central Tenochtitlan, a striking one- hundred ft. high building, containing a large complex full of apartments, corridors, and sanctuaries where the god’s priests lived and worked. The two main “gods” in the Aztec pantheon – to whom most human sacrifices were made – were Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca. Its ‘priests’ would paint their bodies black; their permanently uncut hair was always plastered with dry blood. Their sharp teeth tapered to a point. The new temple was erected and dedicated by order of Tlecaellel who decided, for that special event, to offer up the greatest sacrifice of human lives ever made in the empire’s history. Summing up the various accounts of that sad day, historian R. C. Padden described it as follows:

“Well before daybreak, legionnaires prepared the victims, who were put in close single file down the steps of the great pyramid, through the city, out over the causeways, and as far as the eye could see. For the average person viewing the spectacle from his rooftop, it would appear that the victims stretched in lines to the ends of the earth. The bulk of the unfortunates were from hostile provinces and the swollen ranks of slavery. On the pyramid summit four slabs had been set up, one at the head of each staircase, for Tlecaellel and the three kings of the Aztec Triple Alliance, all of them were to begin the affair as sacrificial priests.

All were in readiness; the lines of victims were strung out for miles, milling about like cattle, waiting their turn in the line that was about to move. Suddenly, the brilliantly arrayed Kings appeared on the platform and silence fell all over the city. Together they approached Huitzilopochtli’s chapel and made reverent obeisance. As they turned to join their aides at the four slabs, great snakeskin drums began to throb, announcing that the lines could now begin to move.”[15]

The victims were readily arranged on the altar where the priest would tear their hearts out by quickly striking them with a huge obsidian knife. The operation was quick and accurate. Once the victims were sacrificed, they were sent tumbling down the steps where the assistants would quarter the bodies that would be cooked and eaten later.

The ceremony went on for four days and we know that at least 80,000 individuals were sacrificed. Tlecaellel ordered that the event should be seen by all of the noblemen and their families. Horrified by that sight, most of them ran away in terror but although they could escape such horror, they could not escape the nauseating smell of human blood engulfing the entire city. The 1487 massacre is one of the appalling chapters in the long list of horrors that is the history of man.

Save us from those who devour us

What the participants and the hopeless victims in that massacre did not know was that that evil social order was soon to change forever. Before that sad generation was gone, the whole nation would be rescued by Christ’s love by means of very unprecedented, amazing events.

“They devour my people as they devour bread; they do not call upon the Lord.” The phrase taken from Psalm 14 can be used to understand how God dealt with the anguish of the poor and downtrodden American peoples. God’s grace was to be dispensed to them in a way never seen before. Such grace came down especially on the poor Mexican natives truly like a refreshing rain. In those days, in the small town of Cusutitlan, not so very far from Tenochtitlan there lived a little boy of about thirteen years of age. By then, he was an apprentice tilma weaver, the traditional fiber ponchos that are typical among the Chichimeca people. He was a Macehualtin, a commoner. He is likely to have attended the sacrifices on that horrible day, maybe out of youthful curiosity. His name was Cuauhtlatouac, “the one who speaks like an eagle.”

Some forty years later, Cuauhtlatouac was baptized with the Christian name of Juan Diego and it was to him that the Mother of God appeared on the Tepeyac Hill right where the Aztec goddess Toniatzin was worshiped in ancient days. In another of those remarkable coincidences in history, the apparition gave rise to the devotion of the Virgin who was called Our Lady of Guadalupe, just like the Virgin Mary was once called in Extremadura, Spain. Columbus had already given that name to one of the Caribbean islands, in appreciation of Our Lady for having helped him survive a shipwreck.

The Prophet Habakkuk seems to talk about this in Scripture: “God comes … before him goes pestilence, and the plague follows in his steps. He pauses to survey the earth; his look makes the nations tremble. The eternal mountains are shattered, the age-old hills bow low along his ancient ways … in wrath you bestride the earth; in fury, you trample the nations. You come forth to save your people, to save your anointed one. You crush the heads of the wicked, you lay bare their bases at the neck. You pierce with your shafts the heads of their princes whose boast would be of devouring the wretched in their lair. You tread the sea with your steeds amid the churning of the deep waters …”[16] The punishment for so much unnatural cruelty was coming.

While the Tlecaellel generation was exceedingly bloodthirsty, the Aztecs were not the only ones that made use of human sacrifices to terrify people and to worship their gods. Evidence of human sacrifices among the cultures of the high Andean plateau has been found also.

Other peoples on the continent practiced cannibalism and ritual homosexuality at different times in history. In my view, the horror of the poor slaves and prisoners is unimaginable.

The remains of sacrificed children in the Inca Empire fill us with sadness and indignation and we agree with the divine punishment that fell upon these peoples when least expected. God stepped into the Americas as described by the Prophet Habakkuk, preceded by pestilence and death, melting the mountains with his might, crushing the wicked forever.

Not all was punishment and destruction. After the fall of the Aztec Empire, the “one that speaks like an eagle” Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin was selected by Heaven to bring to the good people of his race a life-giving vision of peace that would endure through the ages all the way to our days.


[1] His complete name was: Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano

[2] The origin of the word is uncertain. Some etymologists affirm that “Guadalupe” is composed of “wadi” (river), “al” (article) and “lub” (black stone) because the river carried black stones. Others suggest the alternative “Wadi al lubben” (hidden river) since the Guadalupe River runs through deep gorges that hid its presence. In the author’s opinion, the Arabic name most likely sounded somewhat close to the word “Guadalupe.” The modern name possibly evolved from 15th century Castilian aguada del espejo, meaning literally “watering hole [through, a place where animals drink] of the mirror” by apocopation to Guadalupejo, a local name that is still in use. See Historia de Guadalupe by Fray Gabriel Talavera. Toledo 1597, fol. 9-11 and El Origen del nombre de Guadalupe by Arturo Alvares. Historia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe y Fray Francisco de San José by Germán Rubio; and Historia Universal de la Primitiva y Milagrosa Imagen de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Madrid, 1763.

[3] The Gospel of St Luke, as quoted online in newadvent.com.

[4] See Acts 16:8; 2 Timothy 4:7-11; Colossians 4:14, and Philemon 24.

[5] Luke 1:1-4.

[6] De Viris Illustribus, (On Illustrious Famous Men) by St Jerome, Scriptura Press, New York City, 2015.

[7] “Sepultus est Constantinopoli, ad quam urbem vigesimo Constantii anno, ossa ejus cum reliquiis Andreæ Apostoli translata sunt.” De Viris Illustribus 3, 7

[8] “After St. Paul’s martyrdom practically all that is known about him is contained in the ancient Prefatio vel Argumentum Lucæ, dating back to Julius Africanus, who was born ca. A.D. 165. This states that he was unmarried, that he wrote the Gospel, in Achaia, and that he died at the age of seventy-four in Bithynia (probably a copyist’s error for Bœotia), filled with the Holy Ghost.” Catholic Encyclopedia; The Gospel of St Luke, as quoted online in newadvent.com.

[9] Il Segreto negli Occhi di Maria – Da Nazareth a Guadalupe, (The Secret in Mary’s Eyes – From Nazareth to Guadalupe) by Flavio Ciucani, Edizione Mediterranee, Roma, 2013.

[10] Please see 2 Samuel 24:11-25 where a similar angelic intervention happens.

[11] When the Visigoths ruled Spain, lived a nobleman called Severianus, son of King Theodoric Amalus, Ostrogoth and King of Italy who ruled Spain on behalf of his young grandson Amalric. Severianus was raised by his mother receiving from her the rudiments of the Catholic faith.   Severianus married Theodora in Carthage who was also of noble lineage. They had five children: St Leander, St Fulgentius, and St Florentine. St Isidore, and St Theodosia – according to historian Eduardo Cabañete Navarro – she married Liuvigild and was the mother of King St Hermenegild (a martyr) and King Recaredo.

[12] The Hebrew name יוֹנָה (Yonah) means “dove” – Jonah was the prophet sent by God to preach in Nineveh. He fled from his divine appointment by boat but he was caught in a storm. The prophet was thrown overboard and was swallowed by a big fish. Three days later he emerged alive, repentant and ready to fulfill his mission, which resulted in the conversion of Nineveh.

[13] Please see: The Legend of Saint Christopher by Margaret Hodges, Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2009.

[14] 1491, by Charles C. Mann, Vintage Books Random House, New York, 2006.

[15] The Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Sovereignty in the Valley of Mexico 1503-1541, by R. C. Padden, Torchbooks Paperback, 1970.

[16] Habakkuk 3.

monasterio-caceres
Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Extremadura, Spain
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