We entered the Basilica of Mary Major, the primary Marian church in the world, but to me a touching reminder of the importance of matter, the holiness of things, and the love of family.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore spread before us, the tall white columns lining either side of the long nave leading to the canopied altar. We walked slowly down the marbled aisle, glancing up to the gold coffered ceiling, moving toward the high altar with its ornate baldachin, but it was the Confessio below that I was most interested in. For, I knew, curved stairs led to a an ark reliquary containing a piece of the wood of Christ’s crèche. There, a few folks kneeled, others stared and took photos, others stared at those kneeling.
The piece of wood could be seen. It was a material object giving man hope that the stories were true, that there had been born in Bethlehem the Son of God just as they said, that there it all began, man’s journey into life from death. Was the wood real? I believed it probably was.
I smiled at the sweetness of it, the simplicity, the “out of the mouths of babes” wisdom of it, the simple wood glorified, matter made sacred, the created world made holy. We turned and ascended to view the Lukan Madonna nearby.
For the other part of this lovely Christmas church is the Salus Populus Romani, the “Savior of the Roman People.” No, the Roman faithful don’t see this Madonna as redeeming them from sin and death, a role owned by Christ. In the Middle Ages this Madonna was lifted in procession and carried through the streets of Rome during a plague and the plague suddenly ended. Since then she has been invoked by many, many times, notably during World War II when petitioners asked that Rome be spared bombing, and for the most part, the city was spared.
We found the Madonna in the northern transept chapel high over the altar, protected by glass. She is said to have been painted by Saint Luke, but scholars can only date her to the first century; legend must supply the artist. There is a high probability that she is, indeed, a Lukan Madonna.
We stood in the back as a Mass was being offered, and I gazed at the image high above, an earthy image of reds and browns painted on wood, framed in gilt. A thoughtful Eastern face, the boy-child sitting on her knee. Hail Mary, I prayed, and asked her to guide me on this trip through time, through these spaces of prayer and sacrament, of image and wood, of dusty pavements and buzzing scooters. Hail Mary, blessed art thou among women.
The Basilica of Maria Magiore was built on the Esquiline Hill where a cemetery for the poor once existed. In 350 the wealthy John the Patrician dreamed of the Virgin Mary. She asked him to build a basilica on the hill where snow would soon fall. Pope Liberius had the same dream, and the following day, in the heat of August 5, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill, and Liberius marked out a basilica dedicated to Mary. Every August 15 the Ceremony of the Snows is held: flower petals fall from the coffered ceiling onto the congregation.
Open 7 am-6:45; Masses: Sunday 7 am, 8, 9, 10 (Latin), 11, 12 noon, 6 pm; Monday-Saturday 7 am, 8, 9, 10, 11, 3 pm, noon, 6 pm;www.vatican.va