The Sweetest Bait

When Christianity comes conquering with armies, what conquers is not Christianity. Cortés scuttled his fleet for gold and glory, God his banner forwards to the capitol city no doubt, but – really – who was this God? Well, never mind that banner, the Aztecs at first thought the man himself, Cortés, to be a god, namely that feathered-serpent god they called Quetzalcoatl, founder long ago of the original Toltec civilization to which  the Aztecs themselves became heir by conquest, the god reappearing at last in guise of this bearded white man from the East, exactly as had been prophesied centuries before. The Spaniard, it would seem, proved ironically to be their own war-god instead, Huitzilopochtli, the god upon whose altar their priests had continuously sacrificed their countless captured victims, the god to whom they had endlessly lifted sunward ripped-out, still-beating hearts.

After conquering the Aztec empire, after banning all human sacrifice throughout Mesoamerica, Cortés intended in all likelihood to maintain the still-intact structure of the Aztec empire under his leadership, and at first it did seem that the surviving empire would survive, since initially the Aztec upper classes were accepted by the Spanish as noblemen. These learned Spanish, many learning as well to write in European characters, some of their surviving writings becoming crucial in our knowledge of the Aztecs. From the other side, the first missionaries tried to learn Nahuatl and a few, like Bernardino de Sahagún, even set about to learn what they could of the Aztec culture.

But all that changed pretty quickly. To reward the Spanish army that captured what is now present-day Mexico, the soldiers and officers were granted large areas of land and native labor under the Spanish land management system of Encomienda. Although the official intent was that natives were not to become slaves, and although its originators may even have set out with an intent to benefit the natives, the system soon became one of oppression and exploitation. The upper classes of patrons and priests in this new society wasted no time living off the work of the lower classes. We learn of horrifying instances of early abuse against the indigenous peoples, with Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas suggesting the importation of black slaves to replace them. To his credit, Bartolomé later repented when he witnessed even worse treatment inflicted on the black slaves. As it is in reality now in various permutations throughout various societies in our contemporary world, so it was then quite starkly in 16th century conquered Mexico, regardless of any formal belief professed by the ruling elite in a just and loving God:

But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away
and made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his company.

For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
‘Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
For we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been,
for the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
Our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.
For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.

‘Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass us by.
Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.
Let none of us fail to share in our revelry;
everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,
because this is our portion, and this our lot.
Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
or regard the grey hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

                                             (Book of Wisdom 1:16-2:1-5)

“We came to serve God,” wrote Bernal Diaz del Castillo, “and to get rich, as all men wish to do.” This remark will remind many of an observation made, often repeated, about the New England Congregationalist missionaries who had come early to the Hawaiian Islands, before the Islands became, through their lobbying efforts, a possession of the United States, namely: that they came to the Islands to do good, and what with all that sugar and all those pineapples, they did very well indeed.

It was in 1521 that the capitol city of the Aztecs fell to Cortés, in 1524 that the first twelve Franciscans arrived in Mexico City, and in 1525 that a native named Quauhtlatoatzin (Talking Eagle) was baptized by a Franciscan priest, receiving the Christian name of Juan Diego. Despite intense Franciscan and Dominican efforts of evangelization, however, indigenous conversions to Christianity remained few and far between, the inhabitants of the land quite understandably preferring the religion of their ancestors to the religion of the conquistadores. Yet twenty years after the fall of the capital some eight to nine million inhabitants were reported to have converted. What happened in those twenty years that produced this incredible, this historically unprecedented, conversion?

We have two accounts of a remarkable event that occurred in 15 31, published in the 1640’s, one in Spanish and the other in Nahuatl. These accounts relate how, during a walk from his home village to Mexico City early on the morning of December 9, (which in the Spanish Empire of that time was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, not December 8 as now), the peasant Juan Diego saw before his eyes a young girl of fifteen or sixteen, surrounded by unearthly light, on the slopes of the Hill of Tepeyac. Speaking in Nahuatl, the Lady requested that a church be built at that site in her honor. From her words Juan Diego recognized her as the Virgin Mary. Diego, upon telling his story to the Spanish bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, was instructed by him to return and ask the Lady for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The Virgin instructed Juan Diego to gather some roses from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although it was winter and no flowers bloomed, there on the hilltop Diego nevertheless found many roses, with the Virgin herself arranging them in his tilma, or peasant cloak made of cactus fiber. When Juan Diego opened the cloak before Zumárraga, a cascade of Castilian roses fell to the floor, revealing the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously imprinted on the fabric.

The Virgin of Guadalupe being for centuries by far Mexico’s most popular religious and cultural image, with the titles “Queen of Mexico”, “Empress of the Americas”, and “Patroness of the Americas”, Juan Diego’s cloak is displayed in the Basilica of Guadalupe nearby, the most visited Catholic shrine in the world. Devotion comes to her from all over the Americas.

Without question the iconography of the Virgin is thoroughly Catholic. Miguel Sanchez (1594–1674), priest of New Spain and theologian , in his 1648 tract Imagen de la Virgen María, describes her as the Woman of the Apocalypse (Revelation 12:1), “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”. In the same tract, he identifies her also as a representation of the Immaculate Conception. Yet, despite the faultless orthodoxy of the image, this image hid a layer of coded messages for the indigenous people of Mexico as well. Her blue-green mantle was the color associated with the divine couple Ometecuhtli and Omecihuatl; her girdle was interpreted as a sign of pregnancy; and a cross-shaped image inscribed beneath the image’s sash symbolized the cosmos and was called nahui-ollin. The people called her “mother of maguey,” the source of the sacred beverage pulque, “the milk of the Virgin”, seeing spines of the maguey in the rays of light that surrounded her. 

“Motherhood,” says Robert Browning: “All love begins and ends there.” And so the people, poor, oppressed and despised, understood that they had a mother, a mother in the spirit to be sure, yet a native mother of their own, a mother who made believable to them the love of God through Christ. Before, Christ Jesus had been widely regarded as a conquering white god, and accordingly the preaching of salvation and of love by the conquerors’ clerical friends had not been at all convincing, but Christ could now be seen as a fellow sufferer, his mother’s Aztec heart pierced with sorrow, and this was something that rang true to all Aztec hearts, this bleeding Son of God who bore the Cross to Calvary, and this native mother who stood sorrowing at the foot of the Cross.

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On this date nearly five centuries ago roses fell from Juan Diego’s cloak, revealing upon it the miraculous image of the Holy Virgin. Juan Diego, poor as he was, uneducated as he was in European letters, nevertheless could have been just such a one as was referred to in the Book of Wisdom, the “one who rises early to seek” Lady Wisdom, the same one who has no difficulty finding her, for the simple reason that he desires her, that he loves her, that he habitually fixes his thought upon her. Only a cynical or disparaging view of the poor and outcast would believe no such thing is possible of an indigenous 57-year old widower going to early mass one winter morning in the Mexico of the year 1531. Why would it not be possible for someone, knowing he was not wise, yet longing for wisdom, at last to find Wisdom herself one day gently calling him? After all, does Wisdom especially favor the privileged, the powerful, the expensively educated? A close study of human character would suggest otherwise. And certainly in our time, the ruling elite of the world, although demonstrating the vast and endless cleverness of the lying serpent, are clearly lacking even in a modicum of common sense, quite apart from revealing a manifest deficit of true wisdom. 

Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,
because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.

The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction,
and concern for instruction is love of her,
and love of her is the keeping of her laws,
and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality,
and immortality brings one near to God;
so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.

Therefore if you delight in thrones and sceptres, O monarchs over the peoples,
honour wisdom, so that you may reign for ever.
I will tell you what wisdom is and how she came to be,
and I will hide no secrets from you,
but I will trace her course from the beginning of creation,
and make knowledge of her clear,
and I will not pass by the truth;
nor will I travel in the company of sickly envy,
for envy does not associate with wisdom.
The multitude of the wise is the salvation of the world,
and a sensible king is the stability of any people.
Therefore be instructed by my words, and you will profit.

                                                               (Wisdom 6:12-25)

                                                        “When the Holy Spirit finds Mary in a soul,” St. Louis de Montfort tells us, “He enters that soul completely and communicates Himself completely to that soul.” Wisdom, gift of the Holy Spirit, is Sophia herself indwelling the soul as the Blessed Virgin, her Immaculate Heart pierced with the love of God. Without doubt Mary was in Juan Diego’s soul that morning of December 9, 1531. “My little son,” said the Holy Virgin to him, “there are many I could send. But you are the one I have chosen.”  He who was chosen to bring the good news both to the indigenous peoples and to the new race of people now appearing, a race of mixed blood – Mestizos – said to her, “I am a nobody, I am a small rope, a tiny ladder, the tail end, a leaf.” Even so, this nobody, this “tail end”, was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II on July 31, 2002, his humility being especially noted. His feast day is December 9.

“Do not be distressed, my littlest son,” said the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego. Am I not here with you who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not of your kind?” So she was, being called to this day “the dark virgin”, “the little brown one”. For the eye that sees, she represents the great ecumenical hope of the Church Universal, She who is a particularly powerful manifestation of Sophia Maria –Sophia Maria who would place Her Divine Son ever so lovingly into the bosom of every true religion, so that He might be discovered as native each in its own tradition. For, as Saint Catherine of Sienna said long ago, “Mary is the sweetest bait, chosen, prepared, and ordained by God, to catch the heart of humanity.” And so, too, is it with her as Holy Sophia, Daughter of God, she the One who “is quick to make herself herself known to all who desire knowledge of her,” whatever the religion, whoever the people.

Pax et Bonum,

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