Friday, December 27, 2019

Station Churches of the Christmas Season (Part 1)

The Station Churches of Rome are nowadays perhaps thought of as a particular feature of Lent, since that season is the only one that has a station for every day, and the Lenten stations are the only ones which are still kept in Rome itself. However, the Missal of St Pius V, preserving the ancient traditions of the Roman Church, lists stations for several other periods of the liturgical year, such as the Sundays and Ember days of Advent, the pre-Lenten Sundays, and the octaves of both Easter and Pentecost. Prior to the 70-year long removal of the Papacy to Avignon, it was still the custom for the Pope to personally celebrate the principal liturgies at the stations, although one safely assume that this was kept more assiduously by some and less so by others. The following article in three parts will examine the station churches of the Christmas season, from the vigil of Christmas to the feast of the Epiphany.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day

According to a very ancient custom of the Church of Rome, Christmas Day is celebrated with three Masses: one at midnight, preceded by Matins and followed by Lauds; one at dawn, after the hour of Prime; and a third during the day, to be celebrated, as on all major feasts, after Terce. In the Roman Breviary, we still read a homily of St Gregory the Great (590-604) at Christmas Matins, which begins with the words “Because, by the Lord’s bounty, we are to celebrate Mass three times today…” Like most of the great solemnities, Christmas is also preceded by a vigil day, particularly dedicated to fasting and penance in preparation for the feast. Thus, there are in fact four Masses on the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth of December.

Of these four Masses, three currently have the same station listed, the great Basilica of Saint Mary Major. This is, of course, the oldest church in the world dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, and the most important of the many Marian churches in Rome. It was built by Pope St Sixtus III (432-440) to honor Her after the third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus had rejected the heresy of Nestorius, and formally defined Her title “Mother of God.” It is the traditional home of the famous icon known as the “Salus Populi Romani – Salvation of the Roman people”, one of the oldest icons in existence. Almost directly above the main altar of the church, the great arch still preserves the original mosaics of Pope Sixtus’ time, depicting events from the life of the Virgin. The Nativity of Christ, however, is not shown among them; it seems that the Annunciation and Epiphany, prominently depicted one above the other on the left side, were felt to contain between them the whole of the Nativity story.
Santa Maria Maggiore in an 18th century engraving by Giuseppe Vasi.
It is almost certain that already in St Gregory’s time, on the twenty-fourth of December, the canonical hour of None and the vigil Mass of the Nativity were both celebrated by the Pope and his court in the main basilica of Mary Major, to be followed by solemn First Vespers of Christmas. After a rest of some hours, the Pope and clergy would arise in the early part of the night for Matins, the first Mass of Christmas, and Lauds; thus, the Church kept watch for the Nativity of the Lord alongside the Virgin Mary in the stable at Bethlehem. By the middle of the seventh century, however, a small oratory had been built on the right side of the basilica, called “Sancta Maria ad Praesepe”, that is, Saint Mary at the Crib. This chapel was for many centuries the home of the relics reputed to be those of the Lord’s Crib, first attested in Rome in the reign of Pope Theodore (640-49). From roughly that time, the station of the Midnight Mass was kept in the chapel, while the services properly belonging to the Vigil of Christmas remained in the main basilica.
The second Mass is kept at the church of St Anastasia, located at the base of the Palatine hill, very close to the site of the great chariot racing stadium of Rome, the Circus Maximus. The standard opinion among liturgical scholars has long been that this was originally not part of the celebration of Christmas at all, but a Mass in honor of the church’s titular Saint, who was martyred during the persecution of Diocletian in the city of Sirmium, the modern Mitrovica in Serbia. (See the article on St Anastasia by J.P. Kirsch in the Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, vol. 1.2, col. 1923, and Bl. Ildephonse Schuster’s The Sacramentary, vol. 1, p. 368.) This strikes me as extremely improbable, since her feast is not included in the oldest liturgical books of the Roman Rite. The so-called Leonine Sacramentary gives her name last among a group of seven martyrs whose feast is on December 25th, but there is no mention of her (or any of the others) in any of the nine different Mass formulae for Christmas that follow; she is completely absent from the Gelasian Sacramentary. The lectionary of Wurzburg, the oldest of the Roman Rite (ca. 650 AD) lists the Gospel for the second Mass as Luke 2, 15-20, the account of the shepherds coming to Bethlehem, which continues the Gospel of the first Mass, Luke 2, 1-14. This does not exclude the possibility that the station was chosen because the day was also St Anastasia’s feast; in the later Gregorian Sacramentary, her Mass and that of Christmas are given together, with the proper texts of the martyr first. In the Missal of St Pius V and its late medieval predecessors, she is kept as a commemoration at this second Mass.

The third Mass of Christmas was originally celebrated not at Mary Major, but at Saint Peter’s in the Vatican. This would certainly be because the sheer size of the church, just over 100 meters long, would allow for a greater crowd to attend the most solemn of the three Nativity Masses, that which commemorates the eternal birth of God the Son from God the Eternal Father. St Ambrose tells us in the De Virginibus that his sister Marcellina was veiled as a nun by Pope Liberius in St Peter’s on Christmas Day; it is also known that Pope St Celestine I (422-32) read the decisions of the Council of Ephesus to the faithful on the same occasion. One of the most important events in the history Christendom is also connected with this stational observance; on Christmas Day, 800 A.D., Charlemagne was crowned as the Emperor of Rome by Pope St Leo III, before the celebration of the Mass.
The Coronation of Charlemagne, from the Grand Chronique de France, ca. 1455
In about 1140, a canon of St Peter’s Basilica named Benedict records in his account of the ceremonies held in his church, now known as the eleventh Ordo Romanus, that the station of this third Mass was still kept there, but a half a century later, the twelfth Ordo tells us that it is at Mary Major. For most of the Middle Ages, the population of Rome was roughly 20,000 people, living in a city built for a million and a half, and a large church was no longer necessary for the papal Mass of Christmas. Furthermore, for much of the period, the city was ruled by military strongmen, and the Pope, though nominally temporal sovereign of the city, had little or no control over it. For these practical reasons, the station was sometimes kept in the 12th century at Mary Major, which is very much closer than St Peter’s to the Pope’s residence at the Lateran Basilica, and would have been easier and safer for the Papal court to reach. There were in fact several such “double stations” at various periods, and the definitive transfer of this one was probably not made until the later 14th century. The liturgical writer Sicard of Cremona still speaks of the station at St Peter’s in roughly 1200, and explains that “in the Communion of this Mass… ‘All the ends of the earth (have seen the salvation of our God.’); and because the blessed Peter saw this, and confessed it more than the others, as the Father that is in Heaven revealed it to him, therefore the station is at St Peter.”

On the mosaic arch over the altar of Mary Major, the lowest part of the right side depicts the city of Bethlehem, and the left side the city of Jerusalem; this pairing of the two holy cities is a common motif in early Christian art. It is interesting to note that the oratory of the Crib was also frequently called “Sancta Maria in Bethlehem”, and represented, as it were, the city of Christ’s Birth within the Eternal City. For this reason, when the relics of Saint Jerome were moved to Rome from the real Bethlehem, where he died, they were placed once again “in Bethlehem.” In like manner, the church which housed the relics of the True Cross was called “Holy Cross in Jerusalem.” The union of the two holy cities was further shown by the fact that the relics of the Crib of Christ, who was born in this world so that He might die for our sakes, were formerly arranged in the shape of a cross.

(Pictured right: the relics of the Lord's Crib in a reliquary of 1830.)

This chapel also has a special connection with two of the great Saints of the Counter-reformation. St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Company of Jesus, celebrated his first Mass on the principal altar of the Crib chapel; so great was his devotion to the Mass that he deemed a full year necessary to prepare himself properly to celebrate it. In the same place, St Cajetan of Thiene, founder of the first order of Clerks Regular, was graced on Christmas Eve with a vision, in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to him and handed him the Infant Jesus to hold. Both of these events are still commemorated by marble plaques near the altar of the now rebuilt Sancta Maria ad Praesepe.

The chapel was severely damaged during the sack of Rome in 1527, and almost entirely rebuilt in the later 16th-century; it is now often called “the other Sistine Chapel” in honor of the Franciscan Pope Sixtus V (1585-90), under whose auspices the rebuilding was carried out. Like many of the Popes of this era, he was not buried at St Peter’s, which was still under construction during his pontificate. The place which he chose for his monument, therefore, was the great chapel of the Crib, placing opposite himself the monument of his now sainted predecessor, Pius V. To this day, their spiritual brothers are still present in the Virgin Mary’s most ancient church; Dominican friars hear confessions in several languages through most of the day, and Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate serve as sacristans and chaplains. The relics of the Crib have long since been moved to the main altar, so that they may be seen more easily by the many pilgrims who come to church each day.

The second part of this article will discuss the Station churches of the feast days within the Christmas Octave.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: