• Otter Views: Our Lady of Guadalupe

    At some point each holiday season, I want to hear choral music in a setting for which it was written. Carmel provided both over the weekend when the town’s I Cantori chorale sang Christmas-themed music in the resonant Carmel Mission.

    I went to the Saturday concert and left my program there, but I remember a few numbers. There were Gregorian chants, 12th century works by the mystic Hildegard von Bingen, liturgical pieces from Bach, Salieri and Vivaldi, a French bell anthem, and the American spiritual “Rockin’ Jerusalem.” The chorus sang with brilliance and majesty, and the mission’s pin-drop acoustics did them justice.

    During the intermission, I walked up front to admire the big altar and its brightly colored niche figures. I noticed on one wall a beautiful painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It reminded me that today is her feast day.

    I confess I was tickled even to recognize her. Growing up a non-Catholic in Hawaii, I didn’t know one feast day from another and had little experience with Mexican culture. That finally changed during the years I was married to a Californian named Irene.

    When our first Christmas approached, I set up in the living room a little display of seasonal icons I kept in a box. On a shelf I arranged a twinkle tree, an advent calendar, a surfing Santa, and a set of pottery elves I had re-glued since childhood.

    “There.” I stood back and framed the scene with my hands. It seemed satisfactory.

    “Wait,” said Irene. “Leave room for these.” From her own Christmas box came two items I hadn’t seen before: a chunky candle and small statue. Each bore the image of a blue-cloaked madonna emblazoned by golden rays.

    “And she is?” I asked.

    “Our Lady of Guadalupe, of course!

    She’s famous all over Latin America. December 12th is her feast day.”

    “Why do I feel like the last person to find this out?”

    “Because you’re not Catholic, you didn’t grow up in California, and you haven’t been to Mexico,” she explained. “So Mexico is coming to you. On the 12th, I’ll take you to the Mass for Our Lady of Guadalupe. There’ll be a mariachi band and visiting priests from Colombia.”

    We got to the church early, a rare occurrence for me. There was time to watch the 10-piece mariachi band run through its sound check and to admire the Christmas decorations. The sun turned the church’s stained glass panels to rubies, sapphires, emeralds, garnets and topaz.

    Irene pointed to the sacristy. “There she is.”

    Backed by her signature stars and gold foil rays, an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe gazed down from a floral display unlike any I had seen in the pallid Episcopalian churches of my youth. Bowers of roses, carnations, proteas and anthuriums surrounded a three-level water feature. Overhead spun the flashing lights of a star-shaped lantern called a “farol.”

    Irene nudged me. “Check out this boy. Es muy guapo!”

    A small cowboy with a huge mariachi hat strode down the aisle, silver bangles jingling from matched black jacket, pants and boots. There followed two little girls in embroidered blouses from Guatemala, then a bevy of older girls in the traditional red, white and green skirts of Mexico. Small Colombian flags waved from toddlers’ chubby fists.

    When the visiting priests from Colombia filed past, their cassocks bore Our Lady of Guadalupe stitchery on the backs.

    “That commemorates Juan Diego, the poor Indian who saw the Guadalupe apparition at Tepeyac,” Irene whispered.

    “The image of Our Lady was miraculously imprinted on his cloak.”

    “How do you know this stuff?”

    She shrugged. “You have to go to Mexico.”

    Well, I still haven’t been to Mexico, but I looked it up. In 1531, ten years after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and started proselytizing native Americans, it is said a poor convert originally named Cuauhtlatoatzin (“eagle that talks”) was walking over a hill a few miles outside what is now Mexico City.

    Suddenly a “lady from heaven” appeared in the sky, identified herself as the mother of the true God, and told him a temple should be built at the site. Before vanishing, she imprinted her image onto his cloak, a crude cactus-cloth garment with a 20-year shelf life. Miraculously, the cloak reportedly survives nearly 500 years later.

    Many other miracles and controversies enliven the story – too many to explore here. Suffice it to say Juan Diego’s vision has made Tepeyac the Catholic world’s second-most-visited church, trailing only the Vatican. The Guadalupe basilica in Mexico City hosts 10 million pilgrims a year.

    “Okay,” I admitted on the drive home that day. “Our Lady of Guadalupe is cool.”

    Irene nodded. “Si, muy especial!”

    So, to you and to Our Lady today, Feliz Navidad.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on December 12, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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