Jean, a juggler, is severely taken to task by the Prior for singing vulgar songs outside the local monastery. Seeing that Jean is filled with remorse, the Prior asks him to join the order of monks. Jean does so, and is befriended by the monastery's cook, Boniface who tells him the legend of the sagebush which opened its branches to shelter the Infant Jesus as He slept. When Jean sees that the other monks are offering lavish and beautiful gifts to the newly completed statue of the Virgin Mary, he, having no real gift, resolves to do what he can do best. He sneaks into the chapel late at night and juggles before the statue until he collapses from exhaustion.
The other monks enter, horrified, and are about to seize Jean to reprimand him for blasphemy, when a heavenly light begins to glow and a miracle occurs - the statue of the Virgin comes to life and blesses Jean (in some productions, she merely holds out her hands in benediction, in others she tosses him a rose, and in Anatole France's original story, she descends from her pedestal and wipes Jean's brow with a handkerchief, but in most versions of the opera, she smiles down at him). Jean at first is totally unaware of anything, but suddenly cries out that he finally understands Latin (the traditional language of the Catholic Mass). He sees the Virgin ascending to Heaven and beckoning him to follow. In ecstasy, he falls back dead. The other monks, awed by the sight, declare that they have been in the presence of a saint.