Monday, December 28, 2009

Station Churches of the Christmas Season - Part 2

By the end of the fifth century, there were a number of Roman churches dedicated to St. Stephen the Protomartyr, including a monastery behind St. Peter’s in the Vatican, and a large basilica on the via Latina. That which was chosen as the Station church of his feast day is the closest of his churches to the pope’s residence at the Lateran, Saint Stephen’s on the Caelian Hill. It is now often referred to in Italian as “Santo Stefano Rotondo – Round St. Stephen’s”, and is the only round church built in ancient times in the Eternal City. (The Pantheon was often called “Santa Maria Rotonda”, but was not, of course, built as a church.)

The Basilica of Santo Stefano Rotondo; watercolor by Ettore Roseler Franz, 1880

The station remained at Santo Stefano Rotondo, even after a portion of the first martyr’s relics were brought to Rome and placed within the tomb of Saint Lawrence, in the basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls. There are two reasons for this, the first being that, after the long trip around the city for the stations of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the papal court would probably prefer to stay close to home on the day following. More importantly, the round shape of Santo Stefano was chosen in imitation of the ancient church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the city of both the Lord’s Passion and the martyrdom of Stephen. The ancient custom of keeping the feast of Saint Stephen immediately after the birth of Christ serves as a powerful reminder of the mission of the Christ Child, who came into this world to die for our redemption. The eighth responsory of Saint Stephen’s office expresses this most beautifully when it says that “…he first rendered back to the Savior the death which he, Our Savior, deigned to suffer for us.”

The station on December 27th, the feast of Saint John the Apostle, is not kept at the basilica of Saint John in the Lateran, which is officially named the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior. The dedication of this church to the two Saints John, Baptist and Evangelist, postdates the fixing of the traditional stations; so does the church of Saint John at the Latin Gate, where the Apostle was traditionally said to have been thrown into a vat of boiling oil, and miraculously preserved from death. Instead, the Papal court returned to the basilica of Mary Major. The reason for this is first of all the traditional association of Saint John with the Virgin Mary, whom the Lord entrusted to His beloved disciple, shortly before He died on the Cross. The office of Saint John refers to this twice: “At last, when He was to about to die upon the Cross, he commended His Virgin Mother to this virgin, (i.e. Saint John.)

The rood screen of the church of Saint Giles in Cheadle, England, by A.W.N. Pugin, showing the Virgin Mary and Saint John at the Cross; 1841-46. Photograph by Br. Lawrence Lew. O.P.

As mentioned before, the third Ecumenical Council was convened in the year 431 to refute the heresy of Nestorius, who claimed that it was improper to call the Virgin Mary “Mother of God”. The city chosen for this council, Ephesus in Asia Minor, was also the place where Saint John is traditionally said to have died and been buried; the site venerated as his tomb was enclosed within a basilica by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. The station for Saint John’s feast day is therefore also a reminder of the traditional association of both Saint John and the Virgin Mary with the city of Ephesus; the ancient church of Ephesus was also, of course, the recipient of a letters from Saint Paul, the object of a divine message in the Apocalypse of John. (2, 1-7.)

On the following day, the station for the feast of the Holy Innocents is kept at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, the site of the Apostle’s tomb, along the road to the ancient Roman port of Ostia. It may be that this church was chosen because of the relics of the Innocents which were placed there at an uncertain date; on the other hand, the relics may have been placed there because it was already the station church for the feast. (Major relics of the Innocents are also kept at Mary Major in Rome, the Basilica of Saint Justina in Padua, and the cathedrals of Milan and Lisbon.)

The apsidal mosaic of Saint Paul's outside the Walls, detail of the Cross, with five of the Holy Innocents underneath. Photograph by Br. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

The Blessed Ildephonse Schuster notes in his Liber Sacramentorum that nearly all of the major solemnities and seasons of the liturgical year include a stational visit to the churches of both Saint Peter and Saint Paul; it may be that Saint Paul’s was chosen in regard to this custom, after the station at St. Peter’s on Christmas Day. He also points out that Saint Paul is the most illustrious son of the tribe of Benjamin, and of Benjamin’s mother, Rachel. When she died in giving birth to Benjamin, Rachel “was buried on the way that leadeth to Ephrata, which is Beth-lehem”; she represents the mothers who wept over the slaughter of their children, as foretold by the prophet Jeremiah. (Genesis 35, 19 and Matthew 2, 18, the conclusion of the Gospel of the Holy Innocents, citing Jeremiah 31, 15.)

There is no station assigned for the feast of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, who was martyred on December 29, 1170, and whose feast was accepted throughout the Latin church almost imme-diately after his canonization. By the twelfth century, the church of Rome had long ceased to institute stations for new feasts; even Corpus Christi does not have one. Likewise, the common Sundays and ferias within octaves rarely have stations, with the notable exceptions of Easter and Pentecost.

Pope Saint Sylvester I, who died on December 31, 335, is one of the first confessors, (i.e., non-martyrs) to be honored by the Church with a liturgical feast, the other being Saint Martin of Tours. His feast was originally kept with a station at the place of his burial, a basilica which Sylvester himself had built above the Catacomb of Priscilla, in honor of the martyrs Saints Felix and Philip. Prior to the eleventh century, it was the common custom for the pope to go the principal church of each major Roman Saint on their feast day; in fact, the oldest Roman liturgical calendar is partly a list of such papal celebrations. We may imagine that the popes of that era welcomed the two days’ rest between the feast of the Holy Innocents at Saint Paul’s outside the Walls, and that of Saint Sylvester, a few miles in the opposite direction, up the Salarian way. In the year 761, however, his relics were translated to the church of Saint Sylvester, in center of the city; this church is now much more famous as the resting place of the head of Saint John the Baptist, for which it is named “San Silvestro in Capite, i.e. where the head is.” His feast, like that of Saint Thomas, is kept only as a commemoration in the Roman Missals of 1961 and 1970; a memory of its former prominence remains in the custom of calling New Year’s Eve “Sylvester’s night” in German and other languages.
(Pictured above; The Donation of Constantine, from the Chapel of Saint Sylvester at the Basilica of the Four Crowned Martyrs in Rome; roughly 1250.)
The third part of this article will discuss the stations of the Circumcision and the Epiphany.

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