Here's why Our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated during Advent, the 'season of joy and hope'

Today, December 12 — during the season of Advent — is the annual feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an especially important day for Latino Catholics

But why is this day observed and what's the significance? And who is Our Lady of Guadalupe? 

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe commemorates the anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Tepeyac, a hill located near Mexico City, to an indigenous man named Juan Diego, as Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles told Fox News Digital in an interview. 

The name given to the apparition is "Our Lady of Guadalupe," as the area would eventually become known as "Villa de Guadalupe." 

These apparitions occurred from Dec. 9 through Dec. 12, 1531. 

"The story of her apparitions is told in the Nican Mopohua ('Here It Is Told'), a work written in the native language of Nahuatl. One of the earliest manuscripts of this work is held in the New York Public Library and dates to 1550–1560," said Gomez.

Diego, who is now venerated in the Catholic Church as St. Juan Diego, was, at the time, "a recent convert to Christianity," said Gómez.

Diego claimed he was told by the Virgin Mary to ask his local bishop, Archbishop Juan de Zumárraga of Mexico City, to build a shrine in honor of Jesus Christ.

"The bishop at first did not believe Juan’s story that the Virgin had appeared to him. He insisted that Juan produce a ‘sign’ from the Virgin," said Gómez. 

"So, the Virgin instructed Juan to gather up some roses in his cloak, or tilma, and present them to the bishop. When Juan unfolded the tilma in the presence of the bishop, it was revealed that the fabric of the cloak now bore the image of the Virgin," Gómez said. 

The image imprinted on the tilma "immediately became an object of veneration," said Gómez, "with thousands upon thousands of natives streaming to the church where the image was displayed, and many of them converting to Christianity."  

He added, "Our Lady loves us so much as a mother that she wanted us to have a ‘portrait’ of her face. She left this image because she wanted us to be able to look into her eyes and to know, personally, how much she loves us." 

A statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The timing of the apparitions was "just a few decades after the first missionaries brought Christianity to the New World," noted Gómez — something that sparked "deep tensions and even violent conflicts." 

"Our Lady’s message to Juan Diego was that she was the mother of all peoples, and that she came to express God’s universal love as the Creator and giver of all life," said Gómez.

"I will give to people all my love, my compassionate gaze, my help, my salvation," Diego said the Virgin Mary told him, "because I am truly your compassionate mother, ours and of all the people who live together in this land."

The image on the tilma itself was also very significant for the treacherous time period, said Gómez.

On the tilma, "she presents herself as a young mestiza maiden, with a mix of Spanish and indigenous features. The clothing she wore was indigenous, and she spoke to Juan Diego in his language," said Gómez.

"Her original appearance proved to be a force for healing and reconciliation in Mexico and resulted in the widespread adoption of Christianity by native peoples across South America," he added.

Additionally, the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe "has become a powerful sign also of the universal nature of the Catholic Church, which embraces peoples from every nation, race, ethnicity and language as children of God," said Gomez. 

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The tilma has been on display for nearly 500 years since the apparitions — bringing millions of pilgrims each year to Mexico City. 

As a child, Gómez himself traveled nearly every year from his hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, to Mexico City, he said.

"And every time we went, we would make a pilgrimage together, as a family, to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe," he said. "This is still a normal thing to do for many Mexican families."

Said Gómez, "I have a special love and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe that started when I was a boy. I continue to ask her prayers and guidance for my ministry as archbishop, and I am humbled to see so many signs of her tender care and protection in my life." 

While primarily associated with Mexico, there is a longstanding history of veneration for Our Lady of Guadalupe in the United States. 

"Many people don't realize the Virgin of Guadalupe has been venerated in this country since long before the American Revolution," noted Gómez. 

Gómez, who formerly served as archbishop of San Antonio, Texas, told Fox News Digital the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has been observed there since 1731. 

"To put that into perspective, that was one year before the first president of the United States was born, and more than four decades before the Declaration of Independence," he said. 

In Los Angeles, where Gómez currently is archbishop, "we recently held our 92nd annual procession and Mass in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe." 

"This is a wonderful expression of people’s faith in Our Lady — so many of our families and young people come. We pray the rosary together and the faithful carry images of the Virgin in colorful andas, or carts, that they decorate with many flowers," he said. 

This tradition began in 1931, when an influx of Catholic refugees from Mexico fleeing religious persecution arrived in Los Angeles, said Gómez.

In addition to the procession, there is a midnight Mass "that is preceded by hours of singing and dancing and prayer." 

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles' Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels is "privileged to have a tiny fragment from the tilma that we venerate in a special chapel," said Gómez.

"It is the only known relic of the tilma, and it was a gift from the Archdiocese of Mexico City to my predecessor Archbishop Cantwell, to thank him for his courage and generosity in welcoming the refugees from the Mexican persecution," he said. 

For those who are unable to make a physical pilgrimage to Mexico City each year, there are other ways to honor the day. 

"We begin preparing for this important celebration with a novena on Dec. 3," Joel de Loera, director of Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, told Fox News Digital. 

A novena is "a series of prayers during the nine days preceding a particular feast day." he said 

It is commonplace for people to come together, either at different homes or in the parish, to pray each night of the novena, he said, often with a replica of St. Juan Diego's tilma displayed prominently. 

"It is very common for families to bring a variety of foods to the novena, including tamales, hot chocolate, ‘atole’ (warm corn-meal drink), ‘pan dulce’ (sweet bread), among other delicious treats," said de Lorea. 

Special hymns are often sung during this time.

"Then, on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the faithful rise at dawn and head over to church to sing ‘las mañanitas’ to Mary and bring her flowers and other gifts. This is usually done any time between 4 and 6 a.m.," said de Lorea. 

These festivities often include a mariachi band leading hymns before Mass begins.

"Any time during the Guadalupana festivities, you are likely to see the matachines, a group of dancers that perform traditional indigenous dances in honor of Mary of Guadalupe," he said.

Our Lady of Guadalupe's feast day occurs each year during Advent, the liturgical season that proceeds Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. 

"Advent is a season of joy and hope as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ. Blessed Mary’s special role in salvation history is to bring us Jesus," said Gómez.

"And in the image on the tilma, Our Lady of Guadalupe appears as a young maiden with child, a beautiful sign of the Child who is born on Christmas."

On the first Christmas, "love came down from heaven," said Gomez. "In her Virgin womb, Holy Mary bore the God who is Love. She bore the Love who created the stars and the heavens, the earth and all that is in it. She bore the Love who still moves the winds and the seas, and who sustains everything that lives and has breath. And she bore the God who, out of love, has created each one of us."

He added, "So, in many ways, the Virgin of Tepeyac is a sign of our Advent hope."

Although an important figure for many Mexican and Latin Americans, Gomez emphasized that "it's important to remember that Our Lady of Guadalupe is for all Catholics … Her message is universal, and it is the message of God our Father, who loves us so much that He sent His only Son to be born of Mary and to share our hopes and dreams and to offer His life for us."

"The holy tilma is a miraculous sign of God’s love and Our Lady’s love, a treasure that He gives to each of us," said the archbishop, saying that each time he reflects on the image, "I am struck with the powerful awareness of how much I am loved by Our Lady and by her Son, Jesus Christ."

He added, "I hope that in this Advent and Christmas season, everyone will turn to Our Lady and ask her to help them to love Jesus more and more and to spread his love to everyone."

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