Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

‘Coram Ipso Ministravi:’ a Homily for Our Lady of the Snows

And in the holy dwelling place I have ministered before Him(Ecclesiasticus 24, 14).

Today we celebrate the dedication of a church; but our Mass texts are taken entirely from the Common of Our Lady. More or less, we have a Saturday Ladymass. And yet, this is hardly unfitting. Quite the contrary. To see just how fitting it is, we might fix our attention especially on the epistle[1] (a text which also appears in the Little Office of Our Lady, and both the Roman and monastic Divine Office.)

The dedication of churches—from the humblest to the greatest—calls to mind the mystery of God-with-us. Every Catholic church is a sign of the presence and activity of the Most High God, given perfect expression in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Similarly, today’s epistle is filled with language that expresses the rootedness of the Blessed Virgin Mary in salvation history and in the Church.—Ante sæcula creata sum; ‘before the ages I was created.’ Non desinam; ‘I shall not cease to be.’ Firmata sum; ‘I have been established.’ In Ierusalem potestas mea; ‘My might is in Jerusalem.’ In civitate . . . radicavi; ‘In the city . . . I have taken root.’ In plenitudine sanctorum detentio mea; ‘My tarrying is in the fullness of the saints.’

The church whose dedication we celebrate today is old, not new: the first edifice on the site was constructed in the middle of the fourth century—that is, about the 350’s. Naturally, however, this does not mean that devotion to the Mother of God took 350 years to arise in the Church. We just heard the words of sacred Scripture tell us so. Ante sæcula creata sum. Firmata sum. In plenitudine sanctorum detentio mea. No, the stones of the church give material expression to a devotion long held.

Now, within this church—which today we call St Mary Major—there is an ikon of the Virgin Mother: Maria, Salus Populi Romani; Mary, ‘Health,’ or even ‘Salvation of the Roman People.’ The original form of the ikon is reputed to have been painted by St Luke himself on a table made by St Joseph and Our Lord. We know that St Gregory the Great received the ikon in Rome with great solemnity, and from that day onward the image enjoys a very storied history. The church itself, as we would expect, has undergone a number of renovations throughout the past millennium and a half.

But in this church the ikon is a powerful sign. The sacred author of Ecclesiasticus reports the words of the Immaculate Virgin: ‘In the holy dwelling place I have ministered before Him.’ Most profoundly, this refers to the place of the Immaculate One in the eternal designs of God: she ministered before him even before the divine plan was made manifest in creation. (Indeed, it is why we call the Immaculate Conception a prevenient grace.) But in the sacred ikon—figuratively but truly—the Virgin continues to minster before him. She continues to be the health of the Roman people in this holy habitation. Every authentic Marian apparition points to this same truth. The Virgin ministers before God on our behalf, according to the designs of his wonderful Providence.

In habitatione sancta coram ipso ministravi. This is the mystery we commemorate, and indeed venerate, today: namely, the Virgin’s abiding ministration on our behalf. Surely the dark intelligences of God’s enemies are never at rest; surely we in our weakness flag and fail—but the Immaculate One is also constantly ministering before the Most High. She continually echoes her Magnificat before him, which is why the holy Church prays it each evening. Think well on it: the setting sun gives expression to the futility of relying on our own strength; there is no hope for us, left to ourselves. But at just that moment, we take confidence and with child-like mimicry we say, Magnificat anima mea Dominum. ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord!’

Dear friends, how noble a thing, to declare our ancient and sacred love in our ancient and sacred tongue: Sancta Maria, Salus Populi Romani: ora pro nobis! May it never cease to fall from our lips and from our hearts.


[1] Ecclesiasticus 24, 14-16.

{Art Credit: detail, ikon Salus Populi Romani, Papal Basilica of St Mary Major, Rome.}

Homilies & Sermons, Our Lady