Cultural Corner: Mexico and the Basilica de Guadalupe

Towering over a massive stone courtyard deep in the center of Mexico City, stands the lavishly ornate Basilica of Guadeloupe. Here, hundreds of thousands of devout worshipers annually make the pilgrimage to come worship at Mexico’s most sacred Catholic cathedral.  More impressively, based on the number of worshipers, it is considered the most important sanctuary of Catholicism in the world second only to Vatican City.  The magnitude of the dimensions and furnishings of the structure are awe-inspiring to say the least. The newer modern-day Basilica, built in the late 1970’s and constructed on the site of the original 16th century church, can seat up to 40,000 during a large mass. To illustrate its immensity, the smallest of the pipes on the church’s enormous pipe organ weighs 800 pounds. The largest pipe stands forty feet tall, yet looks small attached to the walls of the gigantic front altar.  The entire building is circular in design to give a clear view of the supposed miraculous image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  

The Virgin of Guadalupe is said to be Mary, the mother of Jesus, who reincarnated as an Aztec Indian woman.  The story goes that on December 12, 1531 the Lady Guadalupe first appeared to a young Indian boy, Juan Diego, on a hill named Tepeyac. She spoke in the boy’s native Nahuatl language and told him that a church was to be built on the site.  When Juan Diego told his bishop about the miraculous appearance, the bishop did not believe the story and requested some evidence. Little Juan went back to the hill when the Virgin appeared to him a second time. She commanded the boy to find some flowers and suddenly some Spanish roses immediately grew at his feet. He gathered the roses in his poncho and took them to the bishop. While unfolding his poncho to give the bishop the roses, tradition says that an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe had miraculously appeared on the cloth. It is that supposed original image on Juan Diego’s poncho that hangs on the altar of the Basilica in Mexico City today.
For centuries, devout Mexican worshipers have made the Lady of Guadelupe the center of their faith. This is why thousands gather in the Basilica on December 12th of every year to pay homage to her image. Hundreds of dedicated pilgrims will walk from distant villages to come to the shrine.  Once arriving in the city, some will crawl on their knees for the last several hundred yards of the trip to the altar where the image hangs. I have seen the bloody knees of prayerful pilgrims while relatives walk beside them placing pillows on the ground before every painful step of the dedicated worshiper. Once inside the Basilica, the pilgrims often wait in line to ride a moving walkway which takes them immediately underneath the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Most Mexicans consider it a once-in-a-lifetime privilege to be able to get this close to the shrine.
On one occasion while taking a group of teenagers on a mission’s trip to visit the Basilica, a missionary noticed an elderly woman gazing up at the image of her Lady of Guadeloupe. Dark shriveled skin hung loosely on her frail body. The woman was so advanced in years that she looked as though she could hardly stand upright yet her small figure stood in place for several minutes while the missionary looked on.  With a rosary clasped in her hands and with tears watering her eyes, the lady fervently iterated a prayer.  “All that we have is you oh Virgin,” came her plea in mumbled Spanish. “All that we have is you. You are the only one that can help us now.”  The missionary also began to weep as the woman continued, “Please, oh please heal my daughter. The doctors say that they cannot help her.  No one expects her to live. You are our only hope, please oh please help us.”  The emptiness of the lady’s faith was more than the missionary could endure – empty, because it was based on a prayer to an innate image. Her faith was fueled on a premise that religion and sacrifice could gain favor with a  patron whom she thought was her only hope. It took all the remaining emotional strength left in the missionary to keep him from crying out, “No!  That’s not true!  Jesus Christ is the only hope. He is the only one who can hear your prayer. The One who gave His life for the sins of the world and then conquered death is your hope.”  Tact held him back, but in a second the missionary would have loudly proclaimed to the lady and every other worshiper, “Jesus is the only way; He is your only hope!”
There is something about seeing people’s true spiritual condition that greatly motivates us to proclaim the gospel to them. Personally, I have visited the Basilica several times, yet the missionary’s account of the elderly woman never ceases to impact me. How could someone so sincere be so lost?  Had the woman ever heard the truth that salvation only comes through faith in Jesus Christ?  As a born-again believer, you cannot visit a place where there are so many lost, such as the Basilica of Guadeloupe, and not go away changed with opened eyes and a tender heart.
This was true in the case of Jesus and His disciples as they observed the Jewish crowd. By the time Matthew’s account reaches chapter nine, Jesus had already been baptized and was well into His public ministry. His popularity gained momentum as He traveled to “all the cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.”  As Christ went about His daily tasks of teaching and healing, it was as though He got a glimpse of the crowds and was moved.  An inward emotion mixed with conviction began to affect the very center of Jesus’ being. The Bible described this moment in Matthew 9:36, “But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them.”  The verses go on to tell us the specifics of what Christ observed about the lost that so moved Him. Then, Christ turned to His disciples and directed their attention not only to the lost but also to God the Father. Jesus exhorted them, “Pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:38).  Immediately, in the next chapter of Matthew, the twelve are sent out, equipped with Christ’s power and authority to take the gospel to the same Jewish nation that they were observing. There is something about compassion that initiates motivation. When Christ observed the crowds He was moved with compassion. When the disciples caught the compassion of Christ, they were moved to action.
It is this same love of Christ which motivates effective witnesses. A heart beating in  tune with the Savior’s is what has motivated great evangelistic saints throughout history. It is what caused Paul, a predominate Jew, to reach the Gentiles. The love of Christ motivated Hudson Taylor to go into the dark continent of China. George Muller, the exemplary prayer warrior, was moved to action in sharing the gospel with orphans. The love of Christ led Adoniram Judson, the faithful Baptist missionary, to face imprisonment, sickness, and deep loss all for the sake of sharing the gospel in Burma.
It is this same love of Christ that will motivate us, Christ’s church in America, to cross the cultural barriers necessary in order to reach Hispanics. When we see what Christ sees in the lost we will say with Paul, “For the love of Christ compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14a). We will have no choice but to become “ambassadors for Christ” and share the precious Good News “as though God were pleading through us.”  May we see Hispanics through the eyes of Christ and then seek to reach them today.
by David Whitcher
(Missionary with Baptist Church Planters)