In November, 1519 the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was received by King Moctezuma at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the future site of Mexico City. One of the Spaniards who accompanied Cortes, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, wrote about what they saw there: “Among us there were soldiers who had been in many parts of the world…. Never had they seen a plaza that compared so well, so orderly and wide, and so full of people as that one.” And yet, “as the Spaniards began to explore the city, they found temples soaked with blood and human hearts being burned in ceramic braziers. So thick was the stench of human flesh… that the scene brought to mind a Castilian slaughterhouse.” Archeological journalist Roger Atwood explains that the main temple in the city, the Templo Mayor, “was their holiest place, but more than that, it was the center of the Mexica universe. It was from there that they made contact with the divine world and with the underworld.” The Aztecs believed that the fate of the world rested on what happened on the top of their temple buildings. The ritual human sacrifices performed there were reenactments of Aztec myths played out with actual people – usually members of conquered tribes. One such myth tells of the decapitation and dismemberment of the Aztec moon goddess Coyolxauhqui at the hands of her brother Huitzilopochtli, the sun god and lord of war, representing the victory of the day over the darkness of night. Excavations near the temple’s base have found vast numbers of human skulls that adorned the sacred places, as well as human remains that suggest this grisly story was regularly reenacted on the heights of the temple as a way of empowering the sun god to remain victorious over the threat of darkness, ruled by the moon and stars.
By July 1520, King Moctezuma had been killed, and a year later Cortez completed the conquest of Mexico, claiming the territory for Spain. The human sacrifices were outlawed, and many Christian missionaries, including Franciscans and Dominicans, were sent to Mexico to share the Catholic faith with the native population. Their efforts, however, were largely ineffective. But then, in December 1531, the Blessed Mother appeared on the hill of Tepeyac to an indigenous Mexican peasant named Juan Diego. She was of mixed-race and spoke to him in the native language of the Aztecs. When the Mexican people saw Juan Diego’s tilma that bore her miraculous image, they immediately understood its significance and the Catholic faith suddenly spread like wildfire. The image showed a woman overshadowing the sun, standing victoriously over the moon, and wearing a mantle of stars, thus revealing her to be greater than that which the people had formerly worshipped. The floral designs on her rose-colored garment were recognizable to natives as a map depicting the place of the apparition. She wore an Aztec maternity belt, and the four-petaled flower appearing over her womb was an Aztec symbol that revealed the divinity of her unborn child. Depicted in prayer, Our Lady was clearly not a goddess, but bore a brooch with a cross, the symbol of the Christian religion. Through her apparition, Our Lady of Guadalupe revealed the tender concern of Christ for the native peoples of the New World, who had suffered for so long under the cruel Aztec death cult. Like then, her motherly heart remains today the key to the spread of faith in her Son, and the liberation of peoples in the great civilizations of the 21st century from the powers of evil that, in various ways, continue to demand the trafficking of human flesh and the shedding of human blood. Our Lady’s feast day is this Monday, December 12.