LOURDES AND THE WORLD OF SECOND EMPIRE FRANCE
(Conference IV: March 22nd, 2019)
“The [Samaritan] woman saith to [Jesus]: Sir, Thou hast nothing wherein to draw, and the well is deep. From whence then hast Thou living water? Art Thou greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank thereof, himself and his children and his cattle? Jesus answered and said to her: Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but he that shall drink of the water that I will give him shall not thirst forever. But the water that I will give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting.”
This Gospel of Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well is the Gospel Lesson used for the Mass of Friday of the Third Week in Lent. It is from the stratum of the earliest Lenten Mass formularies of the Roman Church directed towards the catechumens. The “living water” of which Christ speaks is the living water which will flow from His wounded side on the Cross on Good Friday–the Blood and Water which signify the spiritually life-giving power of the Sacraments, of which water Baptism is the gateway.
This Gospel is paired with another “water lesson” in the Epistle: the account of the water miracle in the desert when Moses, on God’s command, struck the desert rock with his wooden staff and out of the rock there streamed a flow of water to preserve the life of the people. As we read in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 20: “And when Moses had lifted up his hand, and struck the rock twice with the rod, there came forth water in great abundance, so that the people and their cattle drank” (Numbers 20:11).
St. Paul the Apostle, in First Corinthians, Chapter 10, sees Christ Himself foretold in the water from the rock. He says: “For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud: and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized, in the cloud and in the sea: And did all eat the same spiritual food: And all drank the same spiritual drink: (And they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them: and the rock was Christ) (I Cor. 10:1-4).
In Christian interpretation, the Church gives us this parallel: Moses in the desert struck the rock with his wooden staff and water burst forth from the rock–Jesus Christ on Good Friday struck the rock of Mount Calvary with the wood of His Cross and from His wounded side, from His piercéd Sacred Heart, there came forth the living water of which He foretold the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well.
Mindful of this we are better able to grasp the significance of the Lourdes stream flowing from the side of the great rock. There are two signs given to the world through the Lourdes’ Apparitions: the first is the water from the rock, the second is how Our Lady announced her name to Bernadette on March 25th: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” These two signs together are an evangelical proclamation, a re-iteration of the first announcement of the Gospel, that the Kingdom of God has indeed come amongst us.
Let us consider this first sign of the Lourdes’ spring. It occurred on the occasion of the Ninth Apparition, February 25th, 1858, which was in that year on the Thursday of the First Week in Lent. The figure of Bernadette’s Apparition, the mysterious girl in white, directed her to dig with her hand directly above the original bed of a spring of “remarkable purity and clearness”. There was nothing to indicate the existence of such a spring by anything inside the Grotto. “I scratched,” [Bernadette later testified] “and water came, but muddy.”
Here is how the historian of Lourdes the Abbé François Trochu describes the miracle of the spring: “Out of the fissure of the rock from which it spurted, the spring rose, in a manner humanly inexplicable, through stones, sand, and gravel, right into the hand of the little child in ecstasy. And at that moment, in the sight of all, the ‘spring’ of which the Vision spoke came into being” (Trochu: Saint Bernadette Soubirous, English edition 1957, pg. 106).
One week later, on March 4th, the heavenly Visitor appeared to Bernadette for the 15th time. It was the last day of the fortnight which the Vision had asked Bernadette to make to her there at the Grotto. It was four in the morning: the authorities estimated a crowd of 7,000 to 8,000 people had gathered. Bernadette’s prayer -ecstasy lasted for a space of 45 minutes. The crowds were convinced that a great sign would occur on this occasion. They were greatly disappointed. They did not yet appreciate the sign of the spring which had been given them–a sign pointing them clearly to the Christian Mysteries of the healing of sin through repentance from the heart and the sacramental transmission of grace.
At first, there was an intense interest in the possibility that these waters might allow Lourdes to become a health spa, which would be patronized by well-off people from France’s great centers who would come to “take the cure”. This had already occurred in some other areas of the region and it was proving to be a lucrative business. Alas, final analysis of the Lourdes water showed only that it was “drinkable water, containing the same elements as most spring water.” Lourdes would never become a famous health-spa!
One month after the first sign of the Lourdes spring, the second sign was given to the world. The Apparitions had abruptly ceased for three weeks. Then, on Thursday, March 25th, the Lady appeared to Bernadette in the Grotto again. It was the great Feast Day of the Annunciation, the Feast which marks the beginning of our Redemption, when “The Angel of the Lord [Gabriel] declared unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Ghost.” It is also a date which directs our spiritual gaze towards the accomplishment of our Redemption, for the actual historic Good Friday was, according to some reckonings, on this precise date or, at the very least, close to it.
In the Year 1858, March 25th fell on Thursday in Passion Week, one week before Holy Thursday and the beginning of the Sacred Triduum. The Feast-day Mass took precedence over the Passiontide Mass, but in the older liturgy both formularies were tied in together. The Passion Thursday collects prayers were said after the Annunciation’s and in place of the Last Gospel was read the Gospel of the Day: Luke 7, the account of the conversion of Mary Magdalene, to whom Christ said, “Thy sins are forgiven thee.” So, we have at the same time the purity of Our Lady “full of grace” and the example of a conversion of heart and the forgiveness of sin by Christ’s divine power–Innocence and Penance – both pointing to the saving effects of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.
On that morning Bernadette had felt called to the Grotto by an interior inspiration. It was five o’clock. There were a few people there, who had thought–who had hoped–that something propitious might occur on this holy day. The Vision appeared again. Bernadette pleaded with her to reveal her name.
“After the fortnight, I asked her again three times one after the other. She went on smiling so I dared to ask her once more. This time, however, she raised her eyes to heaven, joined her hands about her breast and said to me: ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’. These are the last words she addressed to me. Her eyes were blue.” (Antonio Bernardo: Lourdes, 1998)
Mary’s Immaculate Conception, we are taught, was a singular, unique privilege granted to her on account of Christ’s foreseen merits, a “prevenient grace”. Mary is then, hidden as she is in the Gospel accounts, the realization while still on earth of the innocence which shall be realized for all the blessed of the Church Triumphant in Heaven. The Sacraments of Christ heal in us the wounds of sin. To be sure, Mary’s degree of glory far surpasses that of any other creature, man or angel, but the essence of her holiness – “full of grace”– will be shared by all the Saints.
So, let us behold then these two great signs given to the world, now, 161 years ago at Lourdes, and interpreted through the Church: 1) the spring of water flowing from the rock, a symbol of Christ and His life-giving Sacraments, particularly Baptism and the Eucharist, and 2) the identification of Mary’s person with the Immaculate Conception, her innocence pre-figuring the restored innocence of all the Redeemed in Heaven. Indeed, from out of the peculiarities, poverty and obscurity of the Lourdes of 1858, just as from out of the Galilee so long ago, the Lord God has given us a universal message which has gone forth through all the earth.