Friday, August 5, 2011

Our Lady of the Snows

Our elected leaders may stubbornly persist in their refusal to recognize the reality of climate change, but the “facts on the ground” seem to mock such ideological intransigence. In the midst of yet another horrendous heat wave, which is oppressing so much of the U.S. right now, the charming medieval legend of the miraculous snowfall that supposedly fell on Rome’s Esquiline Hill on this date in the mid-4th-century seems especially appealing.
Climate change or not, of course, August in Rome has always been hot. Hence, the manifestly miraculous character of that legendary August 5 snowfall. The story itself, commemorated annually with a shower of white rose petals from the basilica’s dome, was first reported several centuries after the supposed event and so may well have no serious historical basis. The event which does have real history, of course, is the actual dedication on that site and on this date of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome by Pope Sixtus III (432-440). From 1568 to 1969, the legend of the miraculous snowfall was incorporated into the official title of today’s feast as Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Nives. In 1741, it was proposed to delete the “snows” reference, something which finally happened in the 1969 calendar. (These things take time).
Built by Sixtus to commemorate the Council of Ephesus (431) which affirmed the Blessed Virgin Mary’s title as “Mother of God,” the Basilica of St. Mary Major (a manageable walk from the Paulist residence in Rome) is one of the four principal papal basilicas (along with St. John Lateran, St. Peter’s, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls) and one of my personal favorites. In November 2000, it was where we posed for a group picture during our Jubilee year parish pilgrimage from St. Paul’s in New York. (I still have that picture somewhere, but one of the many woeful consequences of moving is having a hard time finding things you know you have somewhere but no longer know exactly where – the same problem I recently had trying to locate my CUA diploma!)
The smallest of the four principal papal basilicas, St. Mary Major is, of course, quite large in comparison with most ordinary churches in Rome or elsewhere. Its design is classical basilica style with a wide nave, two side aisles, and a semicircular apse at one end of the nave (the basic model Isaac Hecker was attracted to in planning his design for the Paulist Mother Church in New York). Its 14th-century bell tower is Rome’s highest. Its 16th-century ceiling is gilded with gold, supposedly brought back from Spain’s newly conquered American empire. Under the papal altar is a crystal reliquary which supposedly contains wood from the original crib of Jesus in Bethlehem. Back in the glory days of the Roman “stational churches,” this was the site of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Midnight Stational Mass. (By my count, St. Mary Major served as the "Stational Church" on 12 occasions during the year in the old Missal - including the 1st and 3rd Masses of Christmas and the main Mass on Easter Sunday). The Bethlehem connection is augmented by the tomb there of St. Jerome. St. Ignatius Loyola celebrated his first Mass in that crypt on Christmas Day in 1538. And then there is the basilica’s beautiful Borghese Chapel, which houses the famous old icon of Mary “Safety of the Roman People.” All in all, it’s a wonderful old church - a Roman treasure for the whole Church!
The 1st reading for today’s Mass is taken from Revelation 21 - John’s vision of a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Then, John heard a loud voice saying: “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them.” God’s "dwelling with the human race" is first and foremost his Son, the Incarnate Word, Jesus, and then the Church, the Body of Christ extended in space and time, which continues Christ’s presence and action in the world. We build church buildings as places for the Body of Christ to assemble. As such, a church building becomes an icon of the Church community itself. Hence, churches – big beautiful basilicas in Rome and the lovely little “church on the hill” in Knoxville and all the other churches big and small all over the world – are true treasures. They are treasures not just of beauty and art – although the best of them certainly are that – but privileged places treasured above all as effective signs of God’s presence in people’s lives and of his continuing action in our world here and now.

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