The Four-Petal Flower

Truths of the Image
The indigenous people of Mexico recognized Our Lady of Guadalupe as bearing the one true God.

In the image on St. Juan Diego’s tilma, we easily recognize Mary as the woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet.” But to understand how God’s presence is shown, we should look at the gold flowers over the Virgin’s tunic. In previous articles, we examined the meaning of these designs in light of their relation to the glyphs of the Indian codices of the era. Now we come to what is perhaps the most important floral glyph: the fourpetal jasmine flower. This design is unique among the image’s flowers. Placed over her womb, it is also central to understanding the woman in the image as not only a virgin, but, in her own words, the “mother of the one true God”.

For the Indians, the design of this four-petal jasmine flower had many interrelated meanings. Cosmologically, it symbolized the four directions of the universe (north, south, east, and west — each governed by a different god). Temporally, it recalled the nahuiollin, indicating the expected apocalyptic end of their current era governed by the fifth sun created for them. In fact, so important was this design that their capital city Tenochtitlan was designed in a quatrefoil pattern with the temple as its nucleus. Most importantly, this design symbolized the Indians’ highest deity, Ometéotl. The Virgin’s image speaks to the Indians profoundly of their basic desire for God.

The fathers of the Second Vatican Council spoke of the “seeds of the Word,” the glimpses of the truth about God found in various cultures. Although many Aztecs were polytheistic, some Indians, like those of Juan Diego’s Texcocan ancestry, had already reached the concept of a single deity, even dedicating a temple to his name.  Although their understanding of this deity was limited, several of their titles reflect certain truths about God — including Tloque-Nahuaque (“Owner of what is near and what is far”), Ipalnemohuani (“Giver of life”), Teyocoyani (“Creator of people”) and Ilhuicahua Tlaltipaque (“Lord of heaven and earth”). In the apparition account, these are in fact the titles by which the Virgin describes her Son.

In a special way, this harkens back to St. Paul’s address at the Areopagus hill, when he spoke to the Athenians about their worship of the “unknown God,” whom they detected but could not understand. As St. Paul explained to them, this God is revealed fully in Christ as the one who created man and the natural order “so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring’” (Acts 17:27-28).

Of course, there are many differences between the God of Jesus Christ and Ometéotl, the god of the Aztecs. The tilma could have addressed a number of these differences. One of the fundamental differences addressed by the jasmine’s placement over Our Lady’s womb is a difference of love, presence and care. Ometéotl was believed to be completely inaccessible, inhabiting the highest heavens and uninterested in the affairs of men. Through the symbols in her image, Our Lady of Guadalupe introduces the Indians to the true God in Jesus Christ. As the incarnate Word in her womb, God is shown neither as distant nor unconcerned. Rather, he chose to be born of a woman, granting immediate access to himself. Christ’s birth marks the beginning of his earthly mission to save mankind.

In this way, Our Lady of Guadalupe becomes for us a model of evangelization perfectly adapted to a specific culture. She extracts the “seeds of the Word” from this religious culture and purifies the error, giving them fullness in her Son, Jesus Christ. Just as the jasmine’s design brings together elements of the Indians’ highest aspirations toward God, so too does the Guadalupan Virgin bring us to encounter the fullness of God’s truth and love. In this woman about to give birth, the future is no longer darkened by the destruction of the sun, but gains a new hope in her, pregnant with the true Sun of Justice, “the Sun from on high” (Lk 1:78). In the presence of the one God who lovingly encounters them — and us — everything is different.