Mysteries Abound Around Saragossa -- Site Of The Virgin Mary's First Apparition
By Michael H. Brown
[adapted from Michael H. Brown’s Seven Days With Mary]
The very first recorded miracle of the Virgin Mary was her legendary appearance in north central Spain at a place known as Saragossa (also spelled Zaragoza).
To understand this apparition, we must recall that it occurred around 40 A.D. -- just a few years after the death and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus.
Some people believe that at the time of the Saragossa miracle, Mary was living with the apostle John in Jerusalem or the city of Ephesus. They say this because, at the Crucifixion, Jesus, peering down at John and Mary, had said, "Woman, there is your son," and to John, "There is your mother" (John 19:26-27).
According to Scripture, from that time on John took the Blessed Mother into his care.
We can only wonder at how it would have been to live with this sacred woman. To be in her presence must have been to be in a state of peace and well-being, listening to her unprecedented wisdom, feeling the strength of her ceaseless prayers. Some people claim that since St. John may have spent time in the city of Ephesus (near what is now called Kusadasi in modern-day Turkey), the Virgin Mary may also have lived there. If so, this simple and humble handmaid was in the midst of pagan territory. For at the time, Ephesus was one of the world's most important cities, and it was home to a goddess cult and the Temple of Artemis. Its magic fascinated other nations, and its merchants were the world's wealthiest, their god the god of materialism
If Mary lived in Ephesus she was aware of the many pilgrims who journeyed from afar to visit the Temple of Artemis and enjoy other pagan treasures. The city was a modern-day version of Hollywood, host to pleasure hunters, flute players, dancers, and glamorous women. They wore ceremonial garments and dressed like mythical creatures that were part beast and part human.
The mission of early Christianity had been to replace such dangerous paganism with the Gospels of Jesus. Ephesus was treacherous territory and whether or not Mary spent time in that city, she was probably aware of its evils. Most likely her mission was to pray and encourage the disciples, and perhaps they brought back accounts of their travels as she awaited them in Jerusalem.
We are not certain how long the Blessed Mother lived. Some say she died 13 years after Jesus (meaning she was about 61), while others believe she lived into her seventies. Nor do we know what she looked like. Her appearance is sheer guesswork. If an early writer named Epiphanus was correct, she had brown eyes and dark eyebrows. Her face was rather oval, and she probably lived in a small hillside house, eating fruit, fish, and bread, of medium height, her complexion the color of wheat, her clothing linen or wool (depending on the season), feet bare or in wood sandals, a veil over her head if she went into the streets, and also wearing a robe or gown.
Some of that concurs with the earliest Christian art, including Byzantine-like paintings of the Madonna that are claimed to have come from the hand of Luke the Apostle. Legend has it that Luke once painted her image on the top of a wood table and also carved small statues of her.
Since Mary was part of their prayer group, it is likely she continued to pray with the disciples long after the Pentecost. In addition to John and Luke, she must have known John's brother James. We recall that James was with John and their father Zebedee mending nets on a boat when Jesus called to them (see Matthew 4:21).
From then on, James was one of the "sons of thunder," a close disciple of Our Savior and as such he witnessed some of Christ's greatest moments, including the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3), the healing of Jairus's daughter (Mark 5:23 and Luke 8:50)), and the agony at Gethsemani.
James was no minor saint and after Jesus died it is believed this apostle traveled as far as Spain and Portugal. On the way it is said he stopped to see the Virgin and implore her prayers. According to legend Mary prayed with James just as she had prayed with him and the other disciples in the Upper Room (Acts 1:14) and it's said that Jesus appeared to His mother and promised help for the apostle, explaining that He would transport her to Spain in order to encourage him.
The apostle was having a hard time. Spain was a semi-barbaric territory, inhabited by strange bands of men who were very hostile to outsiders. And it was a bastion of paganism. The passage between the Pillars of Hercules (now called Gibraltar) led to what poets called an impassable sea of darkness. For ancients it had been considered the edge of the world.
One evening, after a particularly difficult and probably dangerous day of evangelizing, James was praying and resting with his own disciples along the Ebro River when he was jarred by a flash of light and the sounds of a heavenly choir. Angels! They were chanting, "Ave Maria, gratia plena." James fell to his knees, ravished by the sight of the Virgin Mary descending from the sky seated on a pillar or throne of light, surrounded by angels kneeling on clouds just as Jesus was transported by clouds (see Acts 1:9).
Mary then spoke:
"James, servant of the Most High, blessed be thou by God, and may He fill thee with His divine grace. My son James, the Most High and Mighty God of heaven has chosen this place that you may consecrate and dedicate here a church and house of prayer where, under the invocation of my name, He wishes to be adored and served, and all the faithful who seek my intercession will receive the graces they ask if they have true faith and devotion, and in the Name of my Son I promise them great favors and blessings, for this will be my chapel and my house, my own inheritance and possession, and in testimony of my promise, this pillar will remain here, and on it my own image, which, in this place where you will build my church, will last and endure with the holy faith. Note well this pillar on which I am seated, which my Son and your Master sent down to me from on high by the heads of angels and around which you shall set up the altar of my chapel. On this spot the Most High will work miracles through my intercession for those who implore my protection in their need. And this pillar will remain in this place until the end of the world."
We see that Jesus was at the center of this apparition, as He is always at the center of an authentic apparition. He had empowered Mary through the Holy Spirit. He was behind the miracle. We're not sure if it was an apparition of the Virgin or a case of bilocation. If Mary was still alive, it was bilocation; if she had passed on, it was an apparition. When we go so far back in time, we can't be sure of dates. It's claimed that Mary gave James a small column of jasper upon which was a small but beautiful statue of herself carved in wood and holding the Child Jesus. Others say the statue came later. The Virgin requested that a shrine or church be built on the site, and James constructed a tiny one just 16 feet long and eight feet wide.
It was small, but it was of overwhelming significance. For it was the beginning of Mary's mission to replace pagan temples with Christian ones. One day a huge domed basilica would stand there -- the precise size of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
But this temple was dedicated not to a pagan mother-goddess but to the humble Mother of the One True God.
According to the earliest accounts, James gave thanks for the grace and at the end of that apparition watched as the Virgin, accompanied by angels, vanished with them into the clouds. Before leaving she had prophesied that James would return to Jerusalem and die the holy death of a martyr, and indeed this came to be during a persecution of early Christians under King Herod Agrippa I. During James' trial his prosecutor was so impressed by the apostle's steadfast faith that he himself converted. As James was led to execution with the former prosecutor, James embraced his accuser, forgave him, and said "Peace be with you." They were then beheaded together! This took place in Jerusalem but legend says his body was eventually returned to Spain and buried at the famous site of Compostela, which along with Saragossa was to become one of Christianity's greatest shrines.
Many churches have been built at the site of Mary's apparition, withstanding wars and desecrations. Never has paganism polluted it. Never has war destroyed it. Today the huge basilica dominates Saragossa's aging skyline, marking the birthplace of the Spanish Church. From here Christianity would blossom with a fervor known only in a few other nations. To visit this church is to feel Mary's grace -- the grace allotted her by Christ -- and to encounter an edifice of monumental beauty. There are frescoes by the likes of Goya, and tall, majestic towers. The statue of Mary with Jesus in carved in the Gothic style and stands on the sacred column of jasper, from which issues the odor of sanctity. Our Lady is carved out of dark resinous wood and is usually decorated in a heavy and splendiferous cloth.
A great peace comes upon those who recite the Rosary near this statue, and there are also miracles. The greatest may have occurred in 1640. It involved a young man from Arragon named Michael Juan Pellicer Blasco, whose right leg had been crushed by a wagon and had to be amputated just below the knee. Blasco had a great devotion to Our Lady of the Pillar, and after his operation would often visit the Saragossa basilica, anointing his stump with oil from one of the lamps that burned before the Blessed Virgin. While he still suffered from the accident, Blasco gave thanks to Mary for saving his life and was often seen in front of the church begging for money.
On March 29, 1640, Blasco had an amazing dream. In it he found himself roaming the interior of the basilica and anointing his stump with the oil. At about eleven that night his mother entered his room and noticed two feet at the end of his bed, instead of the usual one. At first she thought it must be someone else using the bed, perhaps one of the soldiers quartered in town. But no. It was her son. It was Michael. She ran to get her husband, and they awoke Michael -- whose amputated leg somehow had been regenerated!
We would dismiss such a seemingly implausible account but for the credible witnesses. Many told authorities that they had seen the one-legged beggar, and there were records of the amputation at Grace Hospital in Saragossa by two surgeons named D. Millaruelo and J. Estanga. The leg was buried by an assistant whose name was also in the records. At a hearing initiated by the city government, a couple dozen people offered formal testimony and on April 27, 1641, Archbishop P. Apolaza formally declared it a miracle. Pope Urban VIII was notified.
Thus we see that the most astounding physiological effects -- even regeneration of a limb! -- can be accomplished through the intercession of Mary. She had come to Spain to replace paganism, and so we, in our lives, should look to cleanse hidden areas of darkness. We should seek to purify our society. As we pray, we should ask the Holy Spirit to let us realize our evil and purge it. We should seek God's help in purifying ourselves of past sins, of lust, of deception, of anger. We should ask the Lord to cleanse us of any occultism just as Mary cleansed Saragossa -- and soon the rest of Europe -- of paganism. Her feast day is October 12.
Lord Jesus, You are the Holy One, You are the Most High, You are our Creator. We beg of Thee, oh Lord, to come into the very foundation of our beings and give us insight on how to live our lives. Grant us such affection of the heart that we see all things through the eyes of love and never grow angry. Oh Lord, let us shed all bad habits. Let us never sin again. Let us form ourselves in perfect union with You, living for You and You alone. Let us operate every waking moment with charity.
Cleanse us of all impurity, oh Lord. Form our very beings according to Thy Will. Be our only foundation. Please, oh Lord; please, Holy Spirit; please, Lord Christ: come into and around our lives. Guide our every thought and action. Let it be a sure way to heaven. Let it be a new beginning. Let this be a new awakening for us.
Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Lord Christ. Come as You came to Saragossa, as you showed James Your splendor, as you gave Him Your mother, and grant to us her signal graces as well as the light of truth which comes from Thee.
Grant us truth, oh Lord. Let us evaluate our lives in Your Light. Let us see all our faults and through Your grace correct them. Oh Jesus, oh Lord: come to us as You sent your mother to James and help us in our daily struggles. Oh dear Lord, teach us how to view ourselves. Teach us how to view one another. Teach us how to view life. Teach us, dear Lord, how to approach every minute so that one day, in our last minute, we may sing with the angels.
Oh Holy Spirit, come into the fibers of our being. Erase all evil. Teach us how to pray. Be with us every minute and every second of the rest of our lives, and let us move forward as James did and bring Your Word to heathen territories.
Oh Jesus, oh Holy Spirit, oh Mighty God, pervade our beings so that we may be exactly the person you wanted each of us to be. Grant us grace as if we too had been present at the Transfiguration and with You at Gethsemani and witnesses of Your Resurrection. Grant us the sweet feeling James had upon seeing the image of Mary on the cloud with her angels. Pray for us, sweet Virgin, as you prayed with the apostles in the Upper Room. Enter our lives as you entered James' life. Let us live our lives simply. Let us be content with the basics. Let us never be persuaded by the glamour of this passing world. Form our very beings, form our way of worship, form our society as you formed the early Church.
Dear Lord, let us take into this first day the pleasant blessing of Saragossa. Let us feel as if we are praying there at the great basilica. Let us feel as if we are there in front of the miraculous statue. Grant us peace, oh Holy Spirit. Lift up our spirits. Wash away anxiety and discouragement as you washed it away from James.
And like James let us go forth without fear knowing that this life is a life to be lived for You, Lord Jesus, for You, Holy Spirit, for You, Lord God, and You alone.
Let us pray (response: pray for us):
Oh Virgin, who intervened at the very beginning of the Christian age,
Oh Virgin, who comes when we call,
Oh Virgin of purity,
Oh Virgin of prayer,
Oh Virgin, who gave James strength,
Oh Virgin, who will also grant us strength,
Oh Virgin, through whom Christ performs many healings,
Oh Virgin, spouse of the Holy Spirit,
Oh Virgin, who shows us her Son,
PRAY FOR US!
As the angels prayed at Saragossa so too do we pray:
Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc, et in hora mortis nostra.
And as Pope John Paul II has prayed:
Bright dawn of the new world,
Mother of the living,
to you do we entrust the cause of life:
Look down, O Mother,
upon the vast numbers
of babies to be born,
of the poor whose lives are made difficult,
of men and women
who are victims of brutal violence,
of the elderly and the sick killed
by indifference or out of misguided mercy.
Grant that all who believe in your Son
may proclaim the Gospel of life
with honesty and love
to the people in our time.
Obtain for them the grace
to accept that Gospel
as a gift ever new,
the joy of celebrating it with gratitude
throughout our lives
and the courage to bear witness to it
resolutely, in order to build,
together with all people of good will,
the civilization of truth and love,
to the praise and glory of God,
the Creator and Lover of life.
Oh Lord, Who deigned to cause a miracle at Saragossa, Who purged Spain of paganism, purge our society too of occultism and evil.
Pray with us as you prayed with James.
Heal us as You healed that beggar named Blasco.
Be with us, sweet Virgin, Our Lady of Saragossa, at every crossroad in our lives.
Spanish prayer from Saragossa:
Glorious Virgin of the Pillar, your compassion for the Hispanic people encouraged the Apostle James and encourages us in all adversities and dangers that surround us. Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy and give us the spiritual and temporal graces that we need to serve God and you in this life and the life to come. Amen. (followed by a Hail Mary in memory of Mary's coming to Saragossa; a Hail Mary in thanksgiving for all her blessings; and a Hail Mary for her protection)
Another prayer from Saragossa:
Glorious Virgin of the Pillar, you visited our patron James, and you assured him that the Catholic Faith will never leave this sacred place. Give us, we humbly pray, the same assurance against the indifference and impiety and protestation, and under your guidance lead us to recover the Catholic unity that in the past was the crown of Spain. Amen
A Marianist prayer:
Mary, God chose you as the mother of His Son and called all nations and generations to bless the gift of grace He gave you. In the company of those who have gone before us, with people of all races and languages, we call upon you in prayer.
Litany (response is: pray for us):
Mother of God,
Mother of our redemption,
Mother of the lost Child,
Mother of comfort and understanding,
Mother who shares our joys,
Mother who endures our sorrows,
Mother whose heart was pierced by a sword,
Mother most mercilful,
Mary, you are mother and virgin, wife and widow, peasant and queen, blessed for all time. We need the comfort of your prayers. Remember us always to our Father through your Son, Jesus Christ, Who is our Lord forever and ever. Amen.
The Salve Regina:
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness. and our hope! To you we cry, poor banished children of Eve; to you we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn the, most gracious advocate, your eyes of mercy toward us; and after this our exile, show to us the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary:
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
V: The angel spoke God's message to Mary
R: And she conceived of the Holy Spirit
(Hail Mary, full of grace...)
V: "I am the lowly servant of the Lord:
R: Let it be done to me according to your word."
V: And the Word became flesh
R: and dwelt amongst us.
V: Pray for us, holy Mother of God,
R: That we may become worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray: Lord, fill our hearts with your grace: once, through the message of an angel, you revealed to us the incarnation of your Son; now, through His suffering and death, lead us to the glory of His resurrection. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer of St. Alphonsus:
Behold, O Mother of God, at thy feet a miserable sinner, a slave of hell, who has recourse to thee and trusts in thee. I do not deserve that thou shouldst even look at me; but I know that thou, having seen thy Son die for the salvation of sinners, hast the greatest desire to help them. I hear all call thee the refuge of sinners, the hope of those who are in despair, and the help of the abandoned. Thou art, then, my refuge, my hope, and my help. Thou hast to save me by thy intercession. Help me, for the love of Jesus Christ; extend thy hand to a miserable creature who has fallen and recommends himself to thee.
All of life is a preparation for the afterlife, sweet Virgin. We here beg that you help us keep our eyes on heaven, that you guide our every act and thought and deed, that you orient and prepare us so that immediately upon death we may find the glory the radiant clouds and angels as seen at Saragossa; the glory of heaven.
(Ending with recitation of the daily Rosary)
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