Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Snow in August?...the story of Santa Maria Maggiore

Today is the celebration of the dedication of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major) in Rome. The story of how the Basilica came into being is incredible.

A wealthy aristocrat and devout Christian known by tradition as John lived in Rome in the fourth century. He and his wife had no children, and were fearful that their lack of an heir would put an end to the family's long prominence in the government of the city. They had often prayed for a child but without success. One day John's wife said, "Let us ask the Blessed Virgin to nominate an heir." They did so, and their prayer was answered dramatically.

In August 352 a rectangle of snow was discovered on Mount Esquiline, one of the famous Seven Hills. Snowfall of any sort was unheard of in Rome at that time of year, but that it had fallen only in one place and in such a specific pattern was regarded as a phenomenon. People crowded to see the patch of snow, which persisted despite the heat. John was convinced that its shape and size indicated that a church should be built on the spot. In fact both John and the Pontiff had dreamt that Our Lady desired a church to be built on Mount Esquiline. The Holy Father was so moved by his dream that he visited the mysterious snowfall. When he arrived with his retinue, John and his wife were already there kneeling in prayer to the Virgin.

As soon as the plot for the building had been staked out the snow melted. John met the cost of the building, which was completed in 354 and was dedicated the Basilica Liberiana. Seventy years later the church was rebuilt on a grander scale by Pope Sixtus III, who added decorations and ornaments of silver. From then the church was known as Basilica Sixti and the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore [St. Mary Major].

The present-day church is one of the largest basilicas in the world and its Patronal Festival is held on August 5 in remembrance of the miracle of the snow. During this celebration hundreds of white blossoms are showered from the dome of the chapel [to reinact the Miracle of the Snow].

(taken from

I enjoy this day of celebration because Santa Maria Maggiore is one of my favorite churches in the world and because of the story of the infertile couple begging the Mother of God for a child. (that is something I can relate to!) Not only was it the first church to be dedicated to Mary's motherhood, but it also houses the relics of the manger where the Christ child was born. When Dave and I were in Rome in February 2009, I was so blessed to have my spiritual director, Fr. Jerome, FI, celebrate mass for just the two of us each morning right before the manger (known as the Crib there). It was incredible! To think that the first time God made Himself present was in the manger that was right before my eyes and that the most recent time He made Himself present was in the Eucharist which Father Jerome consecrated and gave to me to was an incredible experience. All of history, from the Incarnation to that present moment, was seemingly right before my eyes. It made me realize that what seems like an eternity to us, is to God, only the blink of an eye.

For another take on the story of Our Lady of the Snow, this story is a good read.

In honor of Our Lady and today's remembrance of the dedication of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, I wanted to close with a beautiful hymn taken from Morning Prayer today.

Praise to Mary, Heaven's Gate,
Guiding Star of Christians' way,
Mother of our Lord and King,
Light and hope to souls astray.

When you heard the call of God
Choosing to fulfill his plan,
By your perfect act of love
Hope was born in fallen man.

Help us to amend our ways,
Halt the devil's strong attack,
Walk with us the narrow path,
Beg for us the grace we lack.

Mary, show your motherhood,
Bring your children's prayers to Christ,
Christ, your son, who ransomed man,
Who, for us, was sacrificed.

Virgin chosen, singly blest,
Ever faithful to God's call,
guide us in this earthly life,
Guard us lest, deceived, we fall.

Mary, help us live our faith
So that we may see your son;
Join our humble prayer to yours,
Till life's ceaseless war is won.

Praise the Father, praise the Son,
Praise the holy Paraclete;
Offer all through Mary's hands,
Let her make our prayers complete.

Text: Ave Maris Stella, 9th century

May she lead us ever closer to her son, Jesus. Amen.
Mary, mother of God, pray for us.

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