|Statue of Mary in|
Mount Saint Francis, Indiana
When the wine ran short,
the mother of Jesus said to him,
"They have no wine."
And Jesus said to her,
"Woman, how does your concern affect me?
My hour has not yet come."
His mother said to the servants,
"Do whatever he tells you."
Today, February 11, is the 161st anniversary of the first apparition of the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes France. On that day "a petite damsel, in white, with a golden rosary and blue belt fastened around her waist, and two golden roses at her feet" invited Bernadette Soubirous, a thirteen year old girl, to pray the rosary with her. The obedient child, of course, had her rosary on her. A series of apparitions followed, climaxed by the woman's identifying herself as "the Immaculate Conception," a title the girl could not understand.
In fact, only recently, in communion with Catholic bishops throughout the world, Pope Pius IX had identified Mary's "immaculate conception" as an infallible doctrine of the Church. Shortly before that, he had decreed what many Catholics already believed, the infallibility of the pope. Perhaps he was giving his new authority a test run. Catholics were thrilled; Protestants were aghast; most people knew nothing about it.
Mary's immaculate status -- that she not only never sinned but had been born exempt from the guilt of Original Sin -- had been a controversial belief for many centuries. Franciscans (for) and Dominicans (against) had argued about it since the middle ages. On the one hand it seemed that Jesus deserved to be born of a sinless virgin; on the other, "How could she be saved from sin if she was not guilty of sin in the first place?" Doesn't Saint Paul say, "All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God?"
Protestants could rightly say that the scriptures say nothing of Mary's having never sinned. Nor, for that matter, is there a clear doctrine of Original Sin in the Bible. Catholics rejoined that both doctrines are suggested in many verses of the Bible and it has taken us many centuries to recognize them.
Although "Rome had spoken," there was still discussion in 1858. And so it was rather astonishing when a peasant girl in France said she saw and spoke with "the immaculate conception." Barely literate, the devout girl would not have known the expression.
Lourdes soon became an extremely popular pilgrimage site as millions of people came from all corners of the Earth to pray and to drink the spring water that appeared below Mary's grotto.
The Catholic Church does not presume to declare these apparitions as infallible signs of anything. If Mary wants to appear to people she doesn't need the Church's by-your-leave. However, we can be skeptical of stories and incidents that violate common sense and our reasonable faith. I would guess there are tens of thousands of claims that she has appeared. Very few have not been suppressed or forgotten; only a few have been deemed harmless enough to be encouraged. Without much police authority priests and bishops mostly roll our eyes and hope the spurious ones go away. Belief in them is strictly optional. Caveat emptor!
When I think of Lourdes, I think of that mysterious title, "The Immaculate Conception." Certainly, Mary can be regarded as one set apart and isolated by this grace. But we should think of her privilege as a bond which draws us to her and to one another. Baptized, we enjoy the privilege of innocence which the Lord has given to us. Acutely aware of our sins and unworthiness, we nonetheless find ourselves in her company; and her in our company. As Isaiah said, "Who would believe what we have heard?"
Secondly, we can rejoice in the blessing God has given this woman. Clearly this is the work of the Lord and it is wonderful in our eyes. Why should anyone be envious who has personally known the forgiveness of sins?
Finally, as in today's gospel, Mary always directs us back to Jesus. She tells us, "Do whatever he tells you!" To obey him is to obey her. And then when he says, "Behold your mother!" what choice do we have but to "Take her into our homes." As Joseph did!
Arriving home with her -- in the home that is now hers -- who do we find there but everyone else! Mary opens her heart and our hearts to people of every language, race, tribe and nation. She never met a stranger, as the pilgrims discover when they arrive in Lourdes.
Holy Virgin Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.