New film uses an age-old story to advance the cause of evangelization in the 21st century
Though talk of the “New Evangelization” has entered the fray only in relatively recent years (the idea was first introduced by Bl. John Paul II in the latter years of his pontificate), the act of evangelization has always been a hallmark of Christianity – indeed, the very fuel of its existence. The challenge of evangelization is indeed the “great commission” given to the Church by Christ Jesus himself. Yet evangelization requires stepping into the darkness of the unknown, and while carriers of the Gospel are guided by the light of truth (and indeed, by the Holy Spirit), little can be said about the experiences that await them. So it was for the missionaries who first brought the seeds of the Christian faith to be sown in the New World, an endeavor which ultimately proved successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, but which could have never been possible without the help of a Mother.
The Blood and the Rose, a new documentary on the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe by director Tim Watkins, gives an account on how the Church, through the particular intervention of the Mother of God, has succeeded in her quest to bring the light of faith to a people in darkness (and in other cases, to help keep the light of faith burning in those places where the torch had already been lit). The film underscores the notion of coming to Jesus through Mary – ad Iesum per Mariam – as well as the image of the woman who crushes the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15; see also Revelation 12).
The serpent – the enemy of God and of the Christian faith – takes many forms throughout human history, but is defeated time and time again. The Roman Empire – once a bastion of paganism and moral disorder of the highest magnitude – became the heart of the Christian world following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312. Centuries later, what had been Roman Hispania (the present Iberia) became a land composed of various Christian kingdoms. By the 8th century, Moors from Northern Africa invaded Iberia, managing to conquer nearly the whole of the peninsula in the name of Islam within a mere decade.
By 722, the Christian forces of Iberia had been driven to the northernmost part of the peninsula, but there it was that their prayers were answered. In Covadonga, within the Kingdom of Asturias in northwestern Iberia, a small band of 300 Christian soldiers celebrated the first victory over the Moorish invaders in what is now hailed as the beginning of the Reconquista. Pelagius, King of the Asturians, credited this decisive and astonishing victory to the intercession of Our Lady of Covadonga – a much-venerated statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary within the region – to whom he had prayed in the days preceding the battle.
But this was not the only time that Mary’s intercession bore fruit for the Iberian Christian forces. In the 14th century, as the Reconquista progressed from north to south, the Virgin appeared to a shepherd in Extremadura, Spain. She instructed him to dig in the place where she had appeared to him; there, he would find the beloved statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which had been named for the river that flowed nearby. The statue had been buried centuries earlier for safekeeping against the Moorish invaders. Upon having been found, a shrine (which eventually became a grand monastery) was built in her honor. King Alfonso XI of Castile and León, like Pelagius before him, asked for the intercession of the Queen of Heaven on behalf of the Christian forces. Sure enough, at Río Salado, the Iberians had their final triumph over the Moors, finally managing to expel them from Europe, never to set foot there again. In this manner, the Blessed Virgin anchored the Christian reclamation of Iberia both at its beginning and end. It is for this reason, in part, that Spanish Catholicism came to have a particularly Marian charism – an element that remains true to this day.
Two centuries later, the battle with the serpent resurfaced anew, but this time in a new and faraway land. In the early 16th century, not long after Columbus’ discovery of the New World, Spanish missionaries and conquistadores landed in Mesoamerica (present day Mexico). In the highlands of that region, they encountered a grand but ruthless civilization – the Aztec Empire – based in the capital city of México-Tenochtitlán. It was there that the serpent of the Bible took the form of the plumed Mexica snake-god, Quetzalcoatl. The snake-god’s effigy was to be found throughout the Aztec capital, and each day, numerous human victims (taken both from amongst the Aztecs themselves as well as from enemies captured in battle) were grotesquely sacrificed atop the pyramids to appease the feathered serpent and the other gods alike.
The Blood: The Offering to the Gods Who Must Be Fed
Among the various accounts of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, there is perhaps none that offers a more vivid firsthand description of the nature of the human sacrifices required by the indigenous religion than Bernal Díaz’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain:
“There were some smoking braziers of their incense, which they call copal, in which they were burning the hearts of three Indians whom they had sacrificed that day; and all the walls of that shrine were so splashed and caked with blood that they and the floor too were black. Indeed, the whole place stank abominably.
“Tezcatlipoca, the god of hell, had charge of the Mexicans’ souls, and his body was surrounded by figures of little devils with snakes’ tails. The walls of this shrine also were so caked with blood and the floor so bathed in it that the stench was worse than that of any slaughterhouse in Spain. They had offered that idol five hearts from the day’s sacrifices.”
The Aztecs believed that their gods – masters of time and space in every respect – thrived on human flesh and blood. So deeply rooted was this notion entrenched in the pagan religion, that they believed that without sacrifice, the sun would no longer rise, the rain would no longer come, the crops would no longer grow, and all that is on earth would eventually cease to be. As such, their priests offered human sacrifices without ceasing, providing a steady supply of blood and flesh for the gods.
The sacrifices themselves were a most macabre spectacle: while still alive, the priest would plunge a dagger into the victim’s chest, tearing a large gash down the length of the abdomen. Then, reaching inside the quasi-conscious victim, he would tear out the still-beating heart to show to the masses (the heart was considered the most precious offering). The body would then be decapitated and quartered, and the remains would be tossed down the steps of the pyramid to the crowd below. And so, it was believed, the Aztec nation lived to see another day.
The Rose: The Offering From the God Who Feeds
On 9 December 1531 – ten years after the fall of the Aztec Empire before the Spanish conquistadores – a humble Indian man by the name of Juan Diego was making his way through the hill of Tepeyac (now the northernmost district of Mexico City). Juan Diego, who had converted to the Catholic faith shortly after the fall of the indigenous civilization, was on his way to Mass at the nearest church, which was several miles from where he lived. Suddenly, the cold and arid surroundings of the Mexican altiplano in wintertime became transformed with the songs of birds, flowers of varied and vivid array, and a warm, golden glow – something not unlike the vision of heaven, as it was known to the Aztec people.
It was in this glorious setting that the Mother of God appeared to Juan Diego. She said to him:
“Know and understand well, you who are the most humble of my sons, that I am the perfect and ever virgin Holy Mary, Mother of the True God through whom we live, the Creator of all things, Lord of heaven and earth. I wish that a temple be erected here quickly, so I may therein exhibit and give all my love, compassion, help, and protection, for I am your merciful Mother – to you, and to all the inhabitants on this land and all those who love, invoke and confide in me.”
Juan Diego – obedient to the Lady’s command, and true to his indigenous name, Cuauhtlatoatzin (“Messenger Eagle”) – went before the Bishop of México, pleading that he allow for the construction of a temple to the Mother of God. Though the bishop received Juan Diego warmly and listened to his story with a fatherly patience, he dismissed him, telling him to return with a sign that would serve as evidence of his story.
The Virgin appeared another two times (once to Juan Diego, and once to his ailing uncle, Juan Bernardino, in order to cure him) before appearing one final time on 12 December. Having comforted Juan Diego after healing his uncle, she said to him:
“Am I not here, I, who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need anything more?”
It is in these precise words that the essence of the Christian faith would become known to a people once engulfed by the serpent’s darkness. Whereas the old indigenous religion required a constant “feeding” of the gods, the new religion of the missionaries spoke of a God who offered love, consolation, peace, and salvation. Moreover, while the element of sacrifice was common to both religions, the new religion had need for only one eternal sacrifice – the sacrifice of Calvary, renewed each day on every altar throughout the world. This sacrifice not only served once and for all to offer life everlasting to those who sought it, but was also the means by which God would feed his people, so that they might have life in him. Indeed, a people once used to feeding the gods were now seeing the magnanimity of the God who feeds. And in this same magnanimity, he offers them not only himself, but also his Mother, Mary – the Mystical Rose.
And so, as a sign of her apparition, the Virgin sent Juan Diego to see the bishop with a bundle of miraculous roses gathered in his cloak. Upon having arrived in the presence of the bishop, he unfurled his garment, revealing both the roses, but more miraculous still, the image of Mary of Guadalupe, which had inexplicably appeared on the cloth. This enduring image, which even to this day exists in its unaltered, original form in the Basilica in Mexico City, became the symbol that once and for all unified a new and burgeoning nation into one people. Mary of Guadalupe – whose divinely crafted image contains both elements which the Spanish recognized as being distinctly Marian as well as symbols which the Mexica interpreted as a clear sign of her divine Motherhood and the supremeness of the one true God – was herself the manifestation of a new nation and people. Part European, part indigenous, the Blessed Virgin’s face is distinctly mestiza: a foretaste of the defining demographic and culture of Christian Mexico. She is the mother of all.
Following in the Footsteps of Juan Diego, the “Messenger Eagle”
Because of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s role in the conversion of a people once enslaved by darkness, Bl. John Paul II hailed her as a beacon of light for evangelization in our own day and age as well, bestowing on her the title of “Star of the New Evangelization” in his 1999 apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America. As in times past, Mary crushed the head of the serpent, this time made manifest in Quetzalcoatl. Indeed, her title of ‘Guadalupe’ – though instantly recognized by the Spanish as the very name of their beloved Virgin in Extremadura – came to be understood by the natives as a corruption of the Nahuatl ‘Coatlaxopeuh’ (“she who crushes the serpent”).
Yet Mary’s insistence that Juan Diego take her message to the bishop underscores the need for the disciples of Jesus to be active participants in the work of evangelization – and, in our day particularly, to be missionaries of the New Evangelization. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, the “Messenger Eagle”, has given us an example worth emulating. But, most significantly, his example teaches us how our docility, as instruments in the hand of the Lord, yields great fruit.
And, even though one may never see the fruit of one’s work, the importance of sowing the seed cannot be understated. It is said that while Mexico is 90 percent Catholic, she is 100 percent guadalupana. With the seed of evangelization having been planted, let us trust that God will allow that final ten percent of the garden to yield fruit, all in his own time.
To learn more about The Blood and the Rose, please visit www.thebloodandtherose.com.