When Our Lady appears, so does biblical symbolism connected to her and her messages for us.
I have often wondered about certain aspects in Our Lady’s apparitions. For instance, why did she appear at Lourdes with roses on her feet? Flowers are meant to beautify our churches, homes and gardens. Mothers receive corsages on Mother’s Day. But who puts a rose on their toes?
Our Lady does things intelligently and therefore there must have been a reason related to her message. My bewilderment was resolved when I came across Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful are the feet of those on the mountain who announce peace.” It came to me that Our Lady was using biblical imagery in her messages.
Another aspect of the Lourdes vision that I couldn’t comprehend was why she spoke to Bernadette from a niche in that massive rock. She sat in a chair when speaking to St. Catherine Labouré, which is quite normal. The biblical symbolism theory resolved that as well.
Scripture speaks of rocks in both the Old and New Testaments. Moses struck a rock and water gushed out (Numbers 20:11). St. Paul compared Christ to that rock, but who gives spiritual drink (1 Corinthians 1:4). That brings us to Christ Crucified who was pierced in his side from which blood and water flowed (John 19:34), signifying the grace by which the Church is born. Our Lady identified herself to Bernadette as the Immaculate Conception. She, then, as the Immaculate Conception, exemplifies the Church in its perfection emerging from the wounded heart of Christ.
The miraculous water flowing from the Lourdes Grotto fits into that imagery very well. “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (immaculate)” (Ephesians 25:27).
A third aspect of the Lourdes apparition which does not seem to be given much attention to are the first three days — perhaps because she did not speak to Bernadette verbally. But she got her message across through the Rosary, which Bernadette recited in her presence on those days. That was the first thing Bernadette did almost instinctively and noted that she could not raise her hand to make the sign of the Cross until Our Lady did. In other words, her physical actions were synchronized with that of Our Lady. This was an outward indication that inwardly Bernadette’s heart was synchronized with the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the meditations on the mysteries of the Rosary. Since the first day was a Thursday, perhaps the Joyful Mysteries were commemorated, on Friday the Sorrowful Mysteries and on Saturday the Glorious. This could be in preparation for the verbal messages that would follow.
Our Lady’s frequent pose, as Bernadette described her, was that as found on the Miraculous Medal — which seems to link it to the chain of Immaculate Conception events. The position of Mary’s outstretched hands is essential to her title of grace. To appreciate its importance, we can look to Scripture, namely, Proverbs 31 which praises the virtues of a dedicated woman, wife and mother. Proverbs 31:20 is the key passage: “She extends her hand to the poor and stretches her hands to the needy.” Since it is especially to the needy that she extends her hands, this then identifies the particular virtue for which she is commended here – that virtue is mercy. Mercy desires to relieve misery.
As to biblical imagery in the Fatima apparitions, there is the star at the bottom of Our Lady’s robe, which has a double significance. “Star” in Persian is “Esther,” the Jewish Queen who saved her people from extermination on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. That signifies Mary’s mission as a modern Esther saving the Church in our times.
The second significance is as the Star of Evangelization. In his 1975 document on evangelization, St. Paul VI proclaimed Mary the Star of Evangelization. As the Magi were guided by a star in their search for Christ, so Mary can guide us to him because of her unique maternal relationship to him. In his 2007 encyclical On Christian Hope, Pope Benedict pointed out, “Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us?”
As for the Fatima miracle of the sun, that has the symbols of the time of Noah: rain, rainbow and a new earth. It rained fiercely that day at Fatima. During the spinning of the sun, the Cova was covered with various colors, at the end of which the earth was cleared of the mud and water as was the clothing of the people. Thus, we see a miraculous renewal of the earth. In the Old Testament story, the former immoral population was replaced by Noah’s God-fearing family as a new beginning. Our Lady had said that in the end her Immaculate Heart would triumph, which implies another beginning. That was all signified in the Fatima miracle.
At Tepeyac in Mexico, she imprinted her image miraculously. She is shown in a rose-colored robe decorated in a floral pattern according to Aztec religious hieroglyphics, and a blueish mantle sprinkled with stars according to the celestial pattern of that day. The biblical reference is to Revelation 21:5: “Behold, I make all things new.” Her floral robe represents the earth and her star-studded mantle represents the sky.
She appeared on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (celebrated at that time on Dec. 9) which commemorates her complete freedom from sin and perfect sanctity toward God — prefiguring creation totally restored to the Glory of God the Father. She certainly brought down the former evil Mexican culture, based on continuous human sacrifice, and renewed it through the life-giving Gospel of her Divine Son.
The 1879 apparition at the village of Knock, Ireland is replete with scriptural symbolism. It was an outdoor apparition at a church gable. In the center was a young lamb standing on an altar surrounded by angels. To the left were three figures in white. In the center was Our Lady wearing a crown with her arms raised in prayer like a priest at Mass and her eyes looking heavenward. There was a miniature rose where the crown touched her brow. To the left of her was St. Joseph turned toward Our Lady, his head bowing slightly and his hands folded in prayer. He seemed middle-aged because his hair was beginning to turn gray. Between Our Lady and the altar was St. John the Evangelist dressed as a bishop with an open book in his right hand and his left uplifted as though preaching.
Knock is a liturgical tableau reminiscent of the Book of Revelation where the Lamb of God is prominent. It portrays the inhabitants of heaven in worship. Mary is the Queen of the Liturgy, having treasured and pondered the mighty works of God in her heart. The rose near her crown recalls her title of Mystical Rose. St. Joseph is in a contemplative pose, while St. John is expounding the Mystery of the Eucharist as found in his Gospel. The fact that this apparition took place at the parish Church of St. John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared numerous hearts for the Lamb and his wedding feast, indicates the totality of the Gospel, St. John the Baptist symbolizing the beginning on earth and the apparition portraying the conclusion in heaven.
Our Lady is ingenious in creating such imaginative means to substantiate her verbal messages. Such settings wrap up the apparitions beautifully.
Father Smolenski is the director of the Shrine of Our Lady of Joyful Hope in Kingstree, South Carolina