white rose petals

Aug 5, 2010

Today is the feast of the dedication of the Roman basilica of St Mary Major. This ancient church (built from 4th century and restored many times most fully in 1800’s) is one of the four major (or papal) basilicas of Rome. (there are five if you add (as many do) St. Lawrence outside the Walls).

The basilica is one of the most sumptuously ornamented churches in Rome. It was first built on the Esqualine Hill in the fourth century. It was dedicated to Mary the Mother of God after the First Council of Ephesus in 431 when it was clarified that it is accurate to name Mary “Mother of God.”

So, this afternoon, in honour of the feast I made my way to the church which is just a five minute walk from Termini railway station. For a start it was not difficult to find a quiet spot in the basilica to pray, but it soon became clear that a celebration was about to begin. The crowds swarmed in, huge numbers of young (under 50!) people. Then, at 5, Evening Prayer of the Church was celebrated.

The reason that the feast of the dedication of this basilica is celebrated on August 5th comes from an ancient story. It is said that on the night of 4-5 August in 358 it snowed on the Esqualine. The pope took this as a sign from God and constructed the first basilica in honour of Our Lady: it never snowed in Rome so he took this rare event of pure snow at this place as a powerful message.

This afternoon at Vespers, during the singing of the Magnificat, as the smoke from incense rose to the roof, white rose petals fell from the ceiling. This seems to be a tradition for the Feast. You might be able to make out the petals falling in the photo (below) from the centre panel in the fourth row. The petals continued to flutter down for the full ten minutes of the Magnificat. The people applauded… and the incense continued to rise.

My soul glorifies the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.

He looks on his servant in her nothingness;
henceforth, all ages will call me blessed.

The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy his name!
His mercy is from age to age,
on those who fear him.
He puts forth his arm in strength
and scatter the proudhearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things,
sends the rich away empty.
He protects Israel, his servant remembering his mercy,
the mercy promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and his descendants for ever.

Luke 1:46-48

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