In Rome on August 5th in the year 352 AD a man had a dream. And in that dream our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, told him to build a church in her honor. He would know the place it was to be built by the appearance of snow. So when the man woke up the next morning he found the Esquiline Hill covered in snow. This was a miracle, because Rome in the month of August is hotter than heck.
And so the man and his wife used their immense wealth to build a church in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That church still stands today. Throughout the centuries it’s been repaired, rebuilt and made more and more grand. And every year on August 5th white rose petals are showered down from the dome, remembering that miraculous August snow so many centuries ago, remembering the miracle of Our Lady of the Snows.
Today that beautiful church is a basilica and it’s known as St. Mary Major, the oldest Church in the West dedicated to Our Lady. This is a church we visited during our St. Philip High School pilgrimage. When you walk into St. Mary Major you’ll notice a ceiling with gold medallions, you’ll see beautiful statues, paintings, mosaics, you might notice a side chapel where St. Jerome is buried, and you’ll see a beautiful marble altar covered by a baldacchino. And up high above that altar on an arch you’ll notice an original 4th century mosaic that depicts something unusual; it depicts a lavish gorgeously decorated throne, a big fancy chair which is completely empty. It’s a mosaic of an empty heavenly throne.
And as you walk closer to the altar you’ll notice steps leading down directly beneath the altar. The entrance is surrounded by ornate banisters. And if you were to walk down those steps to the crypt beneath the altar you’d find a beautiful reliquary of gold and glass and inside that fancy container you’d see the rough wood of a manger. The Basilica’s most famous relic is the crib that Mary and Joseph used for the infant Jesus on the night He was born.
Out of infinite love for us Jesus the Son of God, left his heavenly throne to come and dwell among us here on earth to fight for us and become our salvation. With God becoming man God invades the kingdom of darkness, with His own much more powerful Kingdom of Light. The prophet Isaiah writes, “Those who walk in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus is that great light. C.S. Lewis put it this way, “Christianity is the story of how the rightful King has landed, you might say, landed in disguise.” God became man that we might become God. In this great exchange we give Jesus our humanity and in return He gives us His divinity.
St. Francis of Assisi had a great devotion to the Nativity of Jesus, he would meditate often on the birth of Jesus meditating on this great exchange where Jesus fights for us, by taking on our humanity. Knowing of this devotion artists through the centuries have painted St. Francis into their renderings of the Nativity, even though he lived 13 centuries after the birth of Jesus. “What’s St. Francis doing there at the birth of Jesus?” Great was his devotion to the birth of Jesus.
I know that St. Francis visited Rome on a number of occasions, sometimes as a pilgrim, sometimes on official business. And when you go to Rome you visit all the great churches. You go to pray and to take in all that great beauty and history which just lifts the heart, mind, and soul to heaven.
I wonder how the sights of the Basilica of St. Mary Major affected St. Francis. The empty throne up high in the Heavens, and the rough wood of the manger way down below? How did that inspire him? I have no proof that St. Francis ever visited St. Mary Major but he did capture the simple grandeur and humility of our Lord’s nativity one Christmas eve in the year 1223.
On Christmas Eve that year St. Francis found himself in the small town of Grecchio. This was a small Italian town built on the side of a mountain. And St. Francis wanted Midnight Mass to be celebrated in a place large enough so that all of the people in town could attend. Their Franciscan chapel was much too small. So St. Francis went looking for a larger place to celebrate Mass. And he found the spot. He found a cave like niche in the side of the mountain near the town square. “Perfect” he thought, so in this niche within the rock of the mountain he placed an altar. And then he was inspired, this cave like niche reminded him of the very first Christmas where our Lord was born in similar circumstance. He said to his brothers, “I want to make a memorial to the Child who was born in Bethlehem and in some sort behold with our eyes the hardships of His infant state, lying on hay in a manger with the ox and donkey standing by.” And that’s what they did. He found a manger for a crib and filled it with hay. He then found both a donkey and an ox and tied them up next to the crib. There were probably even a few sheep running around. And that’s where the people of Grecchio celebrated Midnight Mass in the year 1223. They celebrated Mass in a stable with a rough wooden manger in their midst and with the townspeople crowding in and around animals. At that Christmas in a very profound way the townspeople of Grecchio mediated on the descent of God form the Glory of Heaven into the hardships and messiness and humility of a manger.
It’s no accident that our manger crib is placed directly beneath our altar. Our Lord left his heavenly throne 2021 years ago to enter into humanity, and now at every Mass he continues to come down from His throne in Heaven to dwell among in the Eucharist.
During the Eucharistic prayer I will call upon the Holy Spirit as I hold my hands over the bread and wine. And while my hands are held over the bread and wine I will pray: “Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the incarnation, this is Christmas made present to us now in the 21st century, God becomes Body and Blood, and this is Christmas, right there on the altar. And then we receive Him, body, blood, soul, and divinity. To receive him is to allow ourselves to be rescued and to live in His divine love.
At the first Christmas and every day since, God has been making a proposal to you. Through his son Jesus he is saying to each and every one of you: “You give me your humanity, I will give you my divinity. You give me your time, I will give you eternity. You give me the bonds that tie you down; I will give you my omnipotence. You give me your slavery; I will give you my freedom. You give me your death; I will give you my life. You give me your nothingness; I will give you my all.”
Jesus came down from Heaven 2021 years ago to fight for you with His divinity hidden by human flesh He came to fight for you. And every time Mass is celebrated Jesus comes down from Heaven to the altar, His divinity hidden by bread and wine He comes to fight for you. Let Him fight for you, let Him fight for you against the kingdom of darkness, you don’t have to do this alone.
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley