Today is the feast of the dedication of the Roman basilica of Saint Mary Major, one of only four major basilicas in the world. The others are also in Rome: Saint John Lateran, Saint Peter and Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls. Each of these ancient churches has a holy door that remains sealed except for jubilees, when the pope comes to open it.
The original church on this site was erected just after the Council of Ephesus (431) — the council at which the title of Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God, was upheld. Saint Mary Major was thus one of the first churches in the world to be dedicated to the Virgin.
And the image of the Blessed Mother that dominates this place is a splendid one.
The basilica is not founded on an imperial building — unlike St. John Lateran, for instance, which stands on a Roman cavalry fort. Yet Pope Sixtus III, who oversaw construction, wanted an awesome structure that brought back ancient days. The church’s shape is that of an imperial court — a basilica in the original sense. This is a palace, slick with marble and sparkling with mosaics, and Mary is its Regina praeclara: its glorious Queen.
Surely Mary, the girl from Nazareth, never lived in a palace. No one carried her in a palanquin or perfumed her feet. Her hands were calloused and she lived in a house that smelled more of sawdust than nard. Her walls were made of mud and straw, not porphyry or lapis-lazuli. Why build a basilica for a Galilee girl?
Those who see only Mary the carpenter’s wife, those who wind up the shopworn complaint that this and other churches are scandalous in their opulence, are doing no favors to the Blessed Mother. For Mary’s ordinariness and poverty are not at war with her queenship; they are essential to it.
Mary is Queen because the King of the Universe took flesh inside her body. When we say “incarnate” we mean it: God lowered himself to be born as a helpless infant. In a backward country. To a poor girl. In a barn. We celebrate this scandal.
In fact, as if to razz the critics, Jesus’s manger, the feed-trough he had to sleep in, is on show here: the original boards of sycamore snuffled by Palestinian cows and lain on by the Lord now rest in a crystal reliquary under the high altar.
A marble altar built over some old wooden planks. A King in a cattle-shed. The Lord chose Mary in defiance of every expectation of the world, then or now. Why censure God’s choice?
Today, you walk off the sticky Roman sidewalks into the Basilica and you see the sacred lavished upon the profane. A few blocks from the old train station, a few steps from the fetid metro, you see poor people — Italians from small towns, Africans on a once-in-a-lifetime tour, Gypsy beggars, your own sorry self — straggle through the doors and wander up the nave in a haze of sweet smoke and holy awe.
Mary did it too. The temple of Jerusalem in her time was massive and magnificent, with a forest of columns and ornaments that sparkled in the sun. Mary entered as a pilgrim throughout her life (Luke 2:22-52). When she did, she wasn’t scandalized by the temple’s treasures; she delighted in them. She knew she was in God’s house. Mary’s simplicity made her fit for the palace. The more simple our hearts, the more openly we rejoice in her basilica today.
Heaven is our home and Mary is our Queen. We come into her courts with praise.
I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God (Revelation 21:3).