Our Lady of Guadalupe dates to 1531. Our Lady of Lourdes dates to 1858. Our Lady of Fátima dates to 1917.
The most popular Marian apparitions all occurred in the last few centuries, which, in the greater perspective of Church history, is fairly recent. But there was a whole other millennium and a half of Church history before that. Did Mary only start appearing to people recently?
Not at all! Amazingly, the first alleged Marian apparition dates all the way back to A.D. 40.
Yes, in the first century, just a few years after the Ascension of Jesus.
The story goes that the Apostle St. James the Greater was in modern-day Spain preaching the Gospel, but without great success. After a lot of work, he had only made a few converts, and he was beginning to lose heart. So, on October 12th, A.D. 40, he gathered a small group of his disciplines and started praying.
Suddenly, Mary miraculously appeared to them. She was standing on top of a pillar, surrounded by angels. She assured them that the people to whom they were preaching would eventually be converted and that their faith would be as strong as the pillar she was standing on. She instructed James to build a chapel in that spot, and she then vanished, leaving the pillar where it was, as well as a wooden image of herself atop the pillar where she had stood.
Here’s a 17th century depiction of the event painted by Francisco de Goya:
St. James did as he was instructed and built a chapel around the pillar and statue. He then returned to Jerusalem, where he was martyred in A.D. 44.
What makes this story even more incredible is the fact that Mary may have been still living in Ephesus at the time. We don’t know the exact year of her Assumption, but if she was still living in Ephesus, it would mean her appearance may have been an instance of bi-location.
The pillar and statue remain in Spain to this day and can be seen in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain. Our Lady of the Pillar is venerated today as the patroness of Spain and the whole Hispanic world.
Here’s the pillar with the statue as it appears today:
You can see that the pillar towards the bottom is metallic. That’s because the pillar, which is made of jasper, has been enclosed in bronze and silver cases.
Also notice that the pillar is draped with a blue and white cover called a manto. The manto has been used to cover the pillar since the 16th century and is made of origami.
Here is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar:
The current Basilica was built between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Now, is this story really true? Or is it just another legendary invention of the medievals?
As it the case with lots of old stories, it’s hard to tell. Many popes have approved of the devotion and encouraged pilgrims to visit the pillar and statue. But according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the earliest recorded testimony of the devotion dates back only to the 12th century.
There’s also a dispute about whether or not the current statue is even the original statue (whenever it was first created). Some traditions say the original wooden statue was lost when the church it was in burned down in 1434 and that the current statue is a replica. Others say the statue survived.
The Catholic faith does not stand or fall on the veracity of this particular story. And either way, I think we can be sure that Our Lady loves us and wants us to lead more people to her Son!
[See also: Why Are Demons So Afraid of Mary?]