What I love about living in France is the opportunity to re-learn history. I never expected French folklore from the Bible.
Who knew, for example, that Lazarus and Mary Magdalene ended up in France? According to Provencal tales, which I learned upon my recent day trip to Saintes-Maries-De-La-Mer, Jesus’s friend Lazarus; his sister, Martha; Mary Magdalene; Mary of James, sister of the Virgin; and a servant girl, Sarah the Egyptian, all arrived in the south of France around 40 A.D. Albeit under less than desirable circumstances.
Legend has it that after the Crucifixion, while Jews continued to be persecuted in Jerusalem, Christ’s extended “family” was cast into the sea in a small boat equipped with neither oars nor food. Miraculously, they landed safely here, now Saintes-Maries-De-La-Mer, where they erected a small chapel and dedicated it to the Virgin. Mary and Sarah remained at the Church while Mary Magdalene and Martha continued preaching throughout Provence. Catholic tradition says that Lazarus was the first Bishop of Marseilles. In the 11th century, the chapel became a church and was reconstructed as a fortress.
Miracles attributed to the Saints are shown in paintings displayed inside the Church at Saintes-Maries-De-La-Mer.
Sarah the Egyptian: Revered by Gypsies
St. Sarah is highly venerated by gypsies. Around the 15th century, nomadic groups from Spain and other regions began annual pilgrimages to the Church. In a colorful procession, the gypsies would carry the statue of St. Sarah and immerse it in the sea. Modern-day pilgrimages honoring St. Sarah take place in May and October. The events are celebrated with horse races, parades of costumed ladies from Arles, and “the running of bulls” staged by herders from the nearby Camargue. Gypsies march the statue of St. Sarah to the sea.
While visiting the Church, I was sighted and stopped by a gypsy woman who pinned a religious symbol on my shirt. Looking straight into my eyes, she touched my forehead and blessed me. As I thanked her and started to walk away, she stuck out her hand… for an “offering.” When I kept walking, she quickly removed the pin from my shirt. Oh well…, I guess “blessings” come at a price.
More about the Camargue