It is the 5th of August 2021 Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
In the 4th-century various church controversies and councils led to the official designation of Mary as the “Theotokos” or “God-Bearer”. From this time we see an explosion of churches built in her honor, stories of apparitions, miracles, and blessings.
In fact, an upcoming show will answer a mailbag question we have been sitting on regarding the role of Mary in the church.
We will see that the Mother of God has many, many names. Sometimes it is a name based on where she has been seen, such as “Our Lady of Guadalupe”. Or sometimes it will be based on a title such as “Queen of Heaven” or “Queen of All Saints”. Other times Mary might be referred to with a particular quality such as “Our Lady of Charity” or “Mother of Sorrows”.
And until the 1960s she was also known as “Our Lady of the Snows”. And this is based on a strange story from the 4th century.
- A wealthy Roman couple is barren and prays to Mary, asking not for a child but instead a worthy cause to donate their money to in death.
- The man has a dream in which Mary tells him to build a church in her honor.
- The man tells Pope Liberius who tells the man that he, too had that dream.
- Praying for a sign, it was on this day, the 5th of August in 352 in the heat of summer that snow fell on the Esquiline hill. The snow was said to have fallen in a perfect outline showing Pope Liberius where to build the basilica.
Ok- various stories add buts here or there- but this is the nuts and bolts outline.
The church built there would become the largest church dedicated to Mary and thus with Marian devotion exploding in the High Middle Ages, this became an important site for pilgrimage. And as this church becomes the center of Marian devotion around 1000, so too do we find this story being told for the first time. But the legend is popular and so did a pilgrimage to the site. Paintings were painted, legends were embellished and soon “our Lady of the Snows” became a popular designation for Mary.
And then this quirky story ran into the Catholic Reforms of the Counter-Reformation and much later the reforms of the 2nd Vatican Council. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church took this popular appellation and local feast day and turned it into a general feast day across the church. This was good for:
The cult of Mary
The yearly pilgrimage to the site and all who benefitted from it.
But with increased scrutiny, the story fell apart as completely legendary. But it is also popular. What does the Catholic Church do with a popular but fabricated story? The popular feast was called “the Dedication of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows” and as the story came under scrutiny the feast day was minimized to a lesser feast and then down to optional. During the Enlightenment, Pope Benedict XIV called a group to study the incident and they recommended dropping any reference to the snow. The church can move slowly, but within a century or so reference to “Our Lady of the Snows” was officially laid to rest and today the feast is that of the Dedication of The Basilica of St. Mary Major. Despite the distancing from the snow legend, every year on this day a service is held and at the end, a flurry of the white rose pedals are dropped from the ceiling of the basilica to memorialize the legend of St. Mary of the Snows whose miraculous August snow was said to have taken place on this, the 5th of August in 352.
The last word for today comes from the mysterious Epistle to the Hebrews:
14 Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. 16 For it is clear that he does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. 17 Therefore, he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God, to make atonement[j] for the sins of the people. 18 For since he himself has suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of August 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by St. Christopher Gillespie of the Snows. Nothing miraculous about it, he just lives in Wisconsin.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.