Thursday, August 4, 2016


Homily for August 5th, 2015: Dedication of St. Mary Major.

          The Church celebrates today the dedication of one of Rome’s major basilicas, St. Mary Major. A legend says that a wealthy Roman and his wife, who were childless, made a vow that at death they would leave their possessions to the Blessed Virgin Mary. They prayed that she would show them how to do this. On the night of August 5th, at the height of the Roman summer, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, where the Basilica of St. Mary Major now stands. And in the same night the couple had a vision telling them to build a church there. Though long recognized as a legend, the story explains why the church is also known as “Our Lady of the Snows.” It is also called “St. Mary of the Manger,” because it contains the supposed relic of the manger in which Mary placed her baby after his birth.

          More important than these historical trivia is the reason why we honor Mary as “Mother of God.” Most Protestant Christians reject the title on the ground that God, being eternal, cannot have a mother. The title comes from the Council of Ephesus, held in 431. The big question at that council was whether Jesus was truly divine; or whether he was simply the most godlike man who had ever lived, as claimed by a powerful group in the Church at that time, called Arians. The Council defined solemnly that Jesus, while truly and completely human like us (but unlike us, without sin), was also truly and completely divine. To express this truth the council gave Mary a Greek title: theotokos, which means “God bearer.” Translated into English, this is “mother of God.” Her child was and is truly God. In reality the statement says more about Mary’s Son than about her. 

          When we speak about praying to Mary or any other saint, what we really mean is that we are asking them to pray for us. The blessings we receive in answer to the prayers of our heavenly friends come not from them. They come from God, in answer to the saints’ prayers. And so we pray, once again, the prayer Catholics have loved to pray for close to two thousand years: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.”