Our Lady of the Snows. Saint Mary Major. Salus Populi Romani, “Salvation of the Roman people,” all point to the same solemnity in Rome celebrated August 5th. Yes, Our Lady of the Snows in August – in Rome!
The history of the basilica has its origins in the 4th century. A wealthy Roman Christian couple, Giovanni and his wife, wanted to offer their possessions to the Virgin Mary by dedicating a Church to her. In a dream one evening, between August 4-5 they couple dreamed the Virgin Mary would notify him where it was to be built.
They visited Pope Liberius to given an account of their intentions and the dream; the Pope had a similar dream. by the name of Giovanni and his The Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius (342-346) and they went to the site indicated by the Virgin Mary: the Esquiline Hill. Upon arriving, the hill was covered in snow.
And so, in the month of August snow on the Esquiline Hill; a sign from Mary. And so, the Church was dedicated to Saint Mary of the Snows, Sanctae Maria ad Nives. Planning and design of the basilica as the pilgrim experiences today was under the pontificate of Pope Sixtus III (432-440) – or even projected under Pope Celestine I (422-32). The basilica as early as the 4th century reflects the view of Rome as being the centre of the Christian world which can be traced to the presence and martyrdom of the early Apostles, Peter and Paul.
With the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD which proclaimed Mary as the Theotokos, “Mother of God,” Pope Sixtus III proclaimed this teaching in the Marian-themed mosaics of the basilica. St. Mary Major was built at a time of controversy when the divinity of Jesus was rejected by Arius, a 4th century heretic claiming that Jesus was subordinate to the Father, a creature, created by God the Father.
Arian false teachings are the worst doctrinal errors imaginable in Christianity, and sadly enough believed and taught by misled Christians in the early Church. In fact, Arianism was so widespread that if the Council of Ephesus did not affirm Mary’s title as “Mother of God,” we would most probably be following the error of Arius today. The Council made clear that Mary is the Mother of a divine person who has a human nature: Jesus is equally divine and human.
St. Mary Major celebrates this affirmation of the divinity of Jesus; a doctrine that was rejected, contested, and resolved through early Church Councils. Ironically, Arius used the Sacred Scriptures to justify his claims but clearly, he was not led by the Holy Spirit in his erroneous interpretation. Instead, it was the Church that resolved the matter at the Council of Ephesus -- even though the influence of the Arian heresy would continue to plague Christendom.
The celebration of this August miracle tells us that God intervenes when He finds it necessary or fitting; and He may defy human logic in His interventions. God is Creator and He orders nature. He reveals to us His majesty through nature, but also His power. Snowfall in August reminds us that God makes use of His creation to lead us to Truth. In this August event that reveals creation is subordinate to God, we discover Mary’s role in God’s plan for our salvation, Mary who is the Mother of God, Mary who is given to us as Mother. Our Lady of the Snows, pray for us.
Fr. David Bellusci, O.P.
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