Today, August 5th, we celebrate the dedication of the highest church in the hierarchy of churches dedicated to Our Lady, the basilica of Saint Mary Major – Santa Maria Maggiore. Not that there is any Santa Maria Minore, the lesser – for Our Lady is always great, but that this is the greatest church in her honour.
This memorial is also called Dedicatio Sanctae Mariae ad Nives ‘the Dedication of Our Lady of the Snows’, since legend goes as follows, from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
During the pontificate of Liberius, the Roman patrician John and his wife, who were without heirs, made a vow to donate their possessions to the Virgin Mary. They prayed that she might make known to them how they were to dispose of their property in her honour. On 5 August, at the height of the Roman summer, snow fell during the night on the summit of the Esquiline Hill. In obedience to a vision of the Virgin Mary that they had the same night, the couple built a basilica in honour of Mary on the very spot that was covered with snow.
Like most legends, there may be some truth to this, even if the first reference to this miracle was only centuries post hoc. I was once wandering through Sydney, Australia, and discovered, on an elevated spot in the middle of the city, a plaque commemorating the one and only snow fall. There was no church there, but one never knows what the future holds.
Whatever the historical veracity of this story, what is true is that the basilica was completed under Pope Sixtus III just after the Council of Ephesus in 431, in celebration of Our Lady being proclaimed truly Theotokos, the ‘Mother of God’, and the glorious church, an architectural and liturgical marvel – with any number of relics, including most of the original ‘manger’ where the Saviour was born – stands as a testament to her holiness and unique place is salvation, and its dedication has been celebrated ever since.