Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tears of St. Lawrence

By Patricia Winton

The Perseid meteor shower we enjoyed earlier this week is known as the “Tears of St. Lawrence” here in Italy. St. Lawrence’s feast day falls on August 10 at the beginning of the annual Perseids, and it is widely celebrated here. Lawrence is remembered for two things. The first is his association with the Holy Chalice, the cup purportedly used by Christ at the Last Supper. According to tradition, the cup passed from St. Peter, the first pope, to his successors until 258 when the Roman government demanded that all church relics be turned over to them. The pope at the time, Sixtus II, gave the cup to Lawrence, one of his deacons. Lawrence, who hailed from Spain, is said to have sent the chalice to his parents there.

Italian celebrations to St. Lawrence sometimes focus on the chalice theme. A group called Chalice of the Stars organizes stargazing events on August 10. Across Italy, people gather in piazzas to drink wine as a toast to St. Lawrence and to watch the Perseids. This year, the sky was clear, and the show glowed.

Grill believed to be used to martyr St. Lawrence
Lawrence’s death marks his second claim to fame, the reason he rose to sainthood. As a deacon, he held the responsibility of distributing alms to the poor. When the persecuting Romans executed Pope Sextus II, the Prefect of Rome ordered Lawrence to show him all the church’s treasures. Lawrence complied by lining up true believers and offering them as the jewels of the church. The enraged prefect sentenced Lawrence to death by barbecue. He was tied to a large metal grill and placed over a slow fire where he was slowly cooked to death. Legend has it that midway through he called out, “I’m done on this side; turn me over.” Thus St. Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks and chefs.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

August Snow in Rome

By Patricia Winton

It rarely snows in Rome, even in the depths of winter, but it snowed in Rome this past Monday, August 5. The temperatures have been hovering around 36 C (upper 90s F). But on Monday, snow fell outside the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, also known as the Madonna of the Snow. The snow was artificial, of course. People stood outside the basilica in summer clothing awaiting the cool flakes to fall.

The annual event reenacts the Miracle of the Madonna of the Snow dating from the 350s when Pope Liberius dreamed that the Virgin Mary told him to build a church where snow fell. On the scorching night between August 4 and 5, according to the legend, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill. The basilica, one of the five in Rome belonging to the Vatican) was completed in 440.

Another version of the legend holds that a wealthy couple without heirs prayed to the Virgin for guidance on how to dispose of their property. Snow fell on that August 4-5 night, and the Virgin appeared to them in a vision, telling them to build a church where the snow had fallen. According to this legend, they built the basilica. We know them only as “a patrician named John and his wife.”

The Catholic church took no notice to either legend for about 1000 years. The celebration of the feast has had a varied history, celebrated first in Rome only, then in other churches around the world. Today, it’s celebrated as the Dedication of the Basilica.

On August 5, during the celebration of two masses at Santa Maria Maggiore—in the morning and at vespers—white petals float from the dome onto the congregation. Originally these petals were from roses; today, they’re from dahlias. Beginning at 9 PM, a light show illuminates the exterior of the basilica. The festivities continue to midnight. Midway through the show, artificial snow falls on the crowd.

Last year, the truck delivering the snow equipment broke down en route and the event was postponed to Ferragosto (August 15—one of Italy’s premier holidays). Just thinking about the snow can cool you down on a sweltering August night.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Buone Vacanze!

Today is August 1st, the traditional start of vacation in Italy. People are heading for the beach or the mountains, and are planning picnics and barbecues. I hope you are having a splendid time. Buone Vacanze!