Rome, delivered from slavery by Peter on the first of this month, offers to the world a wonderful spectacle. O Wisdom, who since the glorious Pentecost, hast spread over the whole world, where could it be more true to sing of thee that thou hast trodden the proud heights under thy victorious feet? On seven hills had pagan Rome set up her pageantry and built temples to her false gods; seven churches now appear at the summits on which purified Rome rests her now truly eternal foundations.
By their very site, the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul, of St. Laurence and St. Sebastian, placed at the four outer angles of the city of the Cæsars, recall the long siege continued for three centuries around the ancient Rome, while the new Rome was being founded. Helena and her son Constantine, recommencing the work of the foundations of the holy City, carried the trenches further out; nevertheless, the churches which were their own peculiar work, viz., Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and St. Savior’s on the Lateran, are still at the very entrance of the pagan stronghold, close to the gates, and leaning against the ramparts; just as a soldier, setting foot within a tremendous fortress which has been long invested, advances cautiously, surveying both the breach through which he has just passed, and the labyrinth of unknown paths opening before him.
Who will plant the standard of Sion in the center of Babylon? Who will force the enemy into his last retreat and, casting out the vain idols, set up his palace in their temples? O thou to whom was said this word of the Most High: Thou art my son, I will thee the Gentiles for thy inheritance, thou mighty One, with thy sharp arrows routing armies, listen to the cry re-echoing from the whole redeemed world: With thy comeliness and thy beauty set out, proceed prosperously and reign! But the Son of the Most High has a Mother on earth; the song of the Psalmist inviting him to the triumph extols also the Queen standing at his right hand in a vesture of gold; if it is from his Father that he holds his power, it is from his Mother that he receives his crown, and he leaves her in return the spoils of the mighty. Go forth then, ye daughters of the new Sion, and behold King Solomon in the diadem wherewith his Mother crowned him on the joyful day when, taking possession through her of the capital of the world, he espoused the Gentile race.
Truly that was a day of joy, when Mary, in the name of Jesus, claimed her right as sovereign and heiress of the Roman soil! To the East, at the highest point of the eternal City, she appeared on that blessed morning literally like the rising dawn; beautiful as the moon shining by night; more powerful than the August sun, surprised to see her tempering his heat, and doubling the brightness of his light with her mantle of snow; more terrible than an army; for from that date, daring what neither Apostles nor Martyrs had attempted, and what Jesus himself would not do without her, she dispossessed the deities of Olympus of their usurped thrones. As was fitting, the haughty Juno whose altar disgraced the Esquiline (Venus), the false queen of these lying gods, was the first to flee before Mary’s face, leaving the splendid columns of her polluted sanctuary to the only true Queen of earth and heaven.
Forty years had passed since the days of St. Sylvester, when the “image of our Savior, depicted on the walls of the Lateran, appeared for the first time to the Roman people.” (Lectiones ii. Noct. in Dedic. Basilicæ Salvatoris) Rome, still half pagan, beheld today the Mother of our Savior; under the influence of the pure symbol at which she gazed in surprise, she felt die down within her the evil ardor which made her once the scourge of nations, whereas now she was to become their mother; and in the joy of her renewed youth she beheld her once-sullied hills covered with the white garment of the Bride.
Even from the times of the Apostolic preaching, the elect, who gathered in large numbers in Rome in spite of herself, knew Mary and paid to her in those days of martyrdom a homage such as no other creature could ever receive; witness in the catacombs those primitive frescoes of our Lady, either alone or holding her divine Child, but always seated, receiving from her place of honor the praise, messages, prayers or gifts of prophets, Archangels, and kings. (Cemetaries of Priscilla, of Nereus and Achilleus, etc.) In the Trastevere, where in the reign of Augustus a mysterious fountain of oil had sprung up, announcing the coming of the Anointed of the Lord, Callixtus in 222 had built a church in honor of her who is ever the true fons olei, the source whence sprang Christ, and together with him all unction and all grace. The basilica raised by Liberious, the beloved of our Lady, on the Esquiline, was not then the most ancient monument dedicated by the Christians of Rome to the Mother of God; but it at once took, and has always kept, the first place among our Lady’s churches in the City, and indeed in the world, on account of the solemn and miraculous circumstances of its origin.
Hast thou entered, said the Lord to Job, into the storehouses of the snow, or has thou beheld the treasures of the hail; which I have prepared for the time of the enemy, against the day of battle and war? (Job 38:22-23) On the 5th of August, then, at God’s command the treasures were opened, and the snow was scattered like birds lighting upon the earth, and its coming was the signal for the lightnings of his judgments upon the gods of the nations. The Tower of David now dominates over all the towers of the earthly city; from her impregnable position our Lady will never cease her victorious sallies till she has taken the last hostile fort. How beautiful will thy steps be in these warlike expeditions, O daughter of the prince, O Queen, whose standard, by the will of thine adorable Son, must wave over the whole world rescued from the power of the cursed serpent. The ignominious goddess, overthrown from her impure pedestal by one glance of thine, left Rome still dishonored by the presence of many vain idols. But thou, all-conquering Lady, didst continue thy triumphal march. The Church of St. Mary in Ara cœli replaced on the Capitol the odious temple of Jupiter; the sanctuaries and groves dedicated to Vesta, Minerva, Ceres, and Proserpine hastened to take the title of one who had been shown in their fabulous history under disfigured and degraded forms. The deserted Pantheon awaited the day when it was to receive the noble and magnificent name of St. Mary ad Martyres. What a preparation for thy glorious Assumption is the series of earthly triumphs which this day inaugurates! The basilica of St. Mary of the Snow, called also of Liberius, from its founder, and also of Sixtus, after Sixtus III, who restored it, owed to this last the honor of becoming the monument of the divine Maternity proclaimed at Ephesus; the name of St. Mary Mother, which it received on that occasion, became under Theodore I, who enriched it with the most precious relic, St. Mary of the crib: all these noble titles were afterwards gathered into that of St. Mary Major, which is amply justified by the facts we have related, by universal devotion, and by the pre-eminence always assigned to it by the Sovereign Pontiffs. Thou the last in order of time of the seven churches upon which Christian Rome is founded, it nevertheless ranked in the Middle Ages next to that of St. Savior; in the procession of the greater Litanies on April 25th the ancient Roman Ordo assigned to the Cross of St. Mary’s its place between that of St. Peter’s, below it, and that of the Lateran, (Museum Italicum: Joan. Diac. Li. de Eccl. Lateran XVI, de Episcopis et Cardinal. per patriarchatus dispositis; Romani Ordin. xi, xii) which followed it. The important and numerous liturgical Stations appointed at the Basilica on the Esquiline testify to the devotion of the Romans and of all Catholics towards it. It was honored by having councils celebrated and Vicars of Christ elected within its walls; the Pontiffs for a time made it their residence, and were accustomed on the Ember Wednesdays, when the Station is always held there, to publish there the names of the Cardinal Deacons or Cardinal Priests whom they had resolved to create. (Paulus de Angelis, Bascilicæ S Mariæ Maj., description vi & v)
As to the annual solemnity of its dedication, which is the object of the present feast, there can be no doubt that it was celebrated on the Esquiline at a very early date. It was, however, not yet kept by the whole Church in the thirteenth century; for Gregory IX, in the bull of canonization of St. Dominic, whose death occurred on the 6th of August, anticipated his feast on the 5th of the month, as being at that time vacant, whereas the 6th was already occupied, as we shall see tomorrow by another solemnity. It was Paul IV who in 1558 definitively fixed the feast of the holy founder on the 4th of August; and the reason he gives is that the feast of St. Mary of the Snow, having since been made universal and taking precedence of the other, the honor due to the holy patriarch might be put in the shade if his feast continued to be kept on the same day. The breviary of St. Pius V soon after promulgated to the entire world the Office, of which the following is the legend:
Under the Pontificate of Liberius, John, a Roman patrician, and his wife, who was of an equally noble race, having no children to whom they might leave their estates, vowed their whole fortune to the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, begging her most earnestly and continually to make known to them by some means in what pious work she wished them to employ the money. The Blessed Virgin Mary graciously heard their heartfelt prayers and vows, and answered them by a miracle.
On the Nones of August, usually the hottest time of the year in Rome, a part of the Esquiline hill was covered with snow during the night. That same night the Mother of God appeared in a dream to John and his wife separately, and told them to build a church on the spot they should find covered with snow, and to dedicate it to the Virgin Mary; for it was in this manner that she wished to become their heiress. John related this to Pope Liberius, who said he had dreamt the same thing.
He went, therefore, with a solemn procession of priests and people to the snow-clad hill, and chose the site of a church, which was built with the money of John and his wife. It was afterwards rebuilt by Sixtus III. At first it was called by different names, the Liberian basilica, St. Mary at the Crib. But, since there are many churches in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and as this one surpasses all other basilicas in dignity, and by its miraculous beginning, it is distinguished from them also by its title of St. Mary Major. On account of the miraculous fall of snow, the anniversary of the dedication is celebrated by a yearly solemnity.
What recollections, O Mary, does this feast of thy greatest basilica awaken within us! And what worthier praise, what better prayer, could we offer thee today than to remind thee of the graces we have received within its precincts, and implore thee to renew them and confirm them forever? United with our Mother-Church in spite of distance, have we not, under its shadow, tasted the sweetest and most triumphant emotions of the cycle now verging on to its term?
On the first Sunday of Advent, it was here that we began the year, as in the place “most suitable for saluting the approach of the Divine Birth, which was to gladden heaven and earth and manifest the sublime portent of a Virgin Mother.” (Gueranger, First Sunday of Advent) Our hearts were overflowing with desire on that holy Vigil, when from early morning we were invited to the bright basilica, (Gueranger, Christmas Day – Afternoon of the Eve) where the “mystical Rose was soon to bloom and fill the world with its fragrance. The grandest of all the churches which the people of Rome have erected in honor of the Mother of God, it stood before us rich in its marble and gold, but richer still in possessing, together with the portrait of our Lady painted by St. Luke, the humble yet glorious Crib of Jesus, of which the inscrutable designs of God have deprived Bethlehem. During that blessed night an immense concourse of people assembled in the basilica awaiting the happy moment when that monument of the love and the humiliation of a God was to be brought in, carried on the shoulders of the priests as an ark of the New Covenant, whose welcome sight gives the sinner confidence and makes the just man thrill with joy.” Alas! a few months passed away, and we were again in the noble sanctuary, this time compassionating our “holy Mother whose heart was filled with poignant grief at the foresight of the sacrifice which was preparing.” (Gueranger, Passiontide, Wednesday of Holy Week) But soon the august basilica was filled once more with new joys, when Rome “justly associated with the Paschal solemnity the memory of her who, more than all other creatures, had merited its joys, not only because of the exceptional share she had had in all the sufferings of Jesus, but also because of the unshaken faith wherewith, during those long and cruel hours of his lying in the tomb, she had awaited his Resurrection.” Dazzling as the snow which fell from heaven to mark the place of thy predilection on earth, O Mary, a white-robed band of neophytes coming up from the waters formed thy graceful court and enhanced the triumph of that great day. Obtain for them and for us all, O Mother, affections as pure as the white marble columns of thy loved church, charity as bright as the gold glittering on its ceiling, works shining as the Paschal Candle, that symbol of Christ the conqueror of death, which offered thee the homage of its first flames.
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)