Thursday, March 4, 2010

Santa Maria in Trastevere

The station church for Thursday in the Second Week of Lent is the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the most ancient and, in my mind, most beautiful churches in all of Rome.

Located in Rome's neighborhood of Trastevere, literally "across the Tiber," the modern church community is probably the descendant of the earliest Christians in Rome. It's known that the Trastevere area was a popular area for artisans and immigrants since for a long time it was not actually part of Rome but rather the beginning of Etruscan territory. It was only formally incorporated as the fourteenth district of the city by Augustus Caesar at the dawn of the imperial era. The area of Trastevere was also known for being inhabited by many Jews, both Roman citizens and Jewish pilgrims from other parts of the empire. It's likely that Sts. Peter and Paul would have visited and perhaps even stayed in this area when they were in Rome.

The Basilica of Santa Maria has the distinction of being most likely the first place the Eucharist was publicly celebrated in the city if not in the entire Roman empire. Until this point, the liturgy would have been a secret affair conducted in the home of a believer. However, in the early 3rd century, some 100 years before Christianity would be legalized by Constantine, a dispute broke out between Christians and Roman soldiers over a public building, the Taberna Meritoria, which had been used by both groups at various points. Pope Callixtus I and the other Christians wanted to use the spot as a house church while others wanted to use it to operate as a tavern to cater to Roman soldiers and veterans who lived in the area. The emperor of the time, Septimius Severus, decided to allow illegal Christian worship rather than the debauchery sure to follow from the patronage of soldiers at the tavern. The founding of the church at this spot, then, was one of the small but important steps toward the legalization of Christianity.

According to legend, the importance of the spot upon which the church was later built dates back even farther. Some time around the birth of Christ, a stream of oil was said to have shot up out of the ground and continued to flow all that day. Such a strange event would have been interpreted by all as a sign of some great divine occurrence, but for Jews especially, it would have been a sign of the coming of the Messiah, the "One Anointed" by oil, who would restore Israel to its place of prominence in the world and justify all those who believed in the one God. Some years later, when stories of Jesus and his message of salvation came to the city, this event would have been recalled and interpreted in light of this new Gospel. Others think that the presence of "oil" was actually that of dirty water, pumped by Augustus into this area so that he could put on the naval battles he so enjoyed. Whatever the origin of the story, the area has been associated with the event ever since, and even today, the place of the "Fons Olei," or fountain of oil, is located to one side of the basilica's altar.

The facade of Santa Maria in Trastevere

Santa Maria's apse mosaic

The current church dates from the 12th and 13th centuries, with some later additions. While the basilica as a whole is beautiful, two particular works of art are quite impressive. First, the exterior artwork of the front facade is quite famous. Statues of Pope St. Callixtus I, St. Cornelius, Pope St. Julius I, and St. Calepodius, all of whose relics are located beneath the high altar insie the basilica. Behind them is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary feeding the Christ Child, with five virgins on each side processing forward, calling to mind the Parable of the Ten Virgins, who filled their lamps with oil. Remembering the ancient story of Trastevere's fountain of oil, the mosaic's message is that Christ is the true Fountain, the Light that illuminates all things. Inside the basilica, the huge apse mosaic depicts the same four saints previously mentioned, as well as St. Peter and St. Paul, on either side of Christ and his Mother, both of whom sit enthroned. Beneath this image, ten lambs process toward the Lamb of God, the one whose sin takes away the sin of the world.

Today's readings tell us how foolish it is to put our trust in anyone or anything of this world, since this world is passing away. The wise man puts his hope in God rather than in riches or honor. In the Gospel, Abraham says to the rich man who is in torment: "If they will not listen to Moses or the prophets, neither will they be persuaded should someone rise from the dead." Such words should be a stark warning to us. Should we, who know that one has risen from the dead, expect any less of a fate if we fail to amend our lives?

The centrality of Christ in the images from Santa Maria remind us that true hope lies only in Jesus, he who is both God and Man, the perfect and the fullest expression of God's message of salvation. Continuing with this season of Lent, let us today examine our lives for those areas where we continue to hope in something of this world rather than in Jesus Christ. Let us, to use the imagery of Jeremiah, plant our foundation firmly in him, stretching out our roots to drink deeply from that stream of Living Water, remembering the words of the Lord: "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

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