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 First Martyr, 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, St Stephen’s on the Caelian Hill, is the one closest to the pope’s ancient residence at the Lateran. 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 Saint’s relics were brought to Rome and placed within the tomb of St Lawrence, in the basilica of St 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 St 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 St 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 St John the Apostle, is not kept at the basilica of St 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 St 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 St John with the Virgin Mary, whom the Lord entrusted to His beloved disciple, shortly before He died on the Cross. The office of St 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 previously, 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 St 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 his feast day is therefore also a reminder of the traditional association of both St John and the Virgin Mary with the city of Ephesus, the ancient church of which was also, of course, the recipient of a letter from St Paul and 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 St Justina in Padua, and the cathedrals of Milan and Lisbon.)
Detail of the Cross in the apsidal mosaic of St Paul’s outside the Walls, with five of the Holy Innocents underneath it. (Photograph by Br. Lawrence Lew O.P.)

The Blessed Ildephonse Schuster notes in The Sacramentary that nearly all of the major solemnities and seasons of the liturgical year include a stational visit to the churches of both St Peter and St Paul; it may be that St Paul’s was chosen in regard to this custom, after the station at St Peter’s on Christmas Day. He also points out that St 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 St Thomas of Canterbury, who was martyred on December 29, 1170, and whose feast was accepted throughout the Latin church almost immediately 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 St 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 St 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 Ss 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 station of the Holy Innocents at St Paul’s outside the Walls, and that of St 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 St Sylvester, in center of the city; this church is now much more famous as the resting place of the head of St John the Baptist, for which it is named “San Silvestro in Capite, i.e. where the head is.” His feast, like that of St Thomas, is kept only as a commemoration in the Roman Missals of 1962 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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