Saturday, May 5, 2012

Christmas in Italy: Saint Stephen's Day in Rome

The day after Christmas is Saint Stephen's feast day.  In Italy, this feast is widely celebrated.  As an Italian Friar explained to us, "On Christmas day, Italians stay at home with their families, relaxing and eating all day.  The next day, Saint Stephen's Day, it is tradition for everyone to go out with their families and visit the beautiful nativity scenes inside of the churches". 

We soon discovered that this was very accurate.  It seemed that almost every Italian had the day off from work and was out visiting the churches of Rome with their families.  The streets and churches were alive with people!  It was inspiring to see the churches full of families in this day-after-Christmas tradition.

We decided to follow in the Italians' footsteps and do a little "church hopping" ourselves.  When in Rome! 

There are four major basilicas in Rome.  On Saint Stephen's Day, we were able to visit all four (Saint Mary Major, Saint Peter's Basilica, Saint Paul's Outside the Walls, and Saint John Lateran)!  The first major basilica we visited on this day was Saint Mary Major. 

Saint Mary Major's Basilica contains wood from Baby Jesus' crib!  It is kept inside of an ornate gold and glass reliquary.  What a beautiful experience to kneel before Jesus' crib on the day after Christmas!

The church also has the relics of St. Jerome, St. Matthias, and St. Matthew.

Next, we visited the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains.  This church contains the chains that were used to bind St. Peter in Jerusalem and Rome.  Legend has it that when the two pieces of chain were touched together, they miraculously attached!

From this Basilica, we headed to the Circus Maximus!  It was very incredible to walk along the greatest chariot racing stadium in Rome.  Imagining the chariots thundering down the track was quite a thrill.  Now, the Circus Maximus is a quiet, open park where runners go to do some laps!

On the ancient chariot track!

After the Circus Maximus, we took the metro back to Saint Paul's Basilica.  Since we were unable to visit Saint Paul's tomb the previous day, we were on a mission to visit our dear patron's tomb on this second visit! 

As I mentioned earlier, Peter is a big fan of Saint Paul.  It's only logical that he would have this heavenly connection, since little Peter has visited St. Paul's hometown three times and has played where young Saint Paul grew up.  Peter can pick out Saint Paul icons in any church.  When we pray our Litany of Saints, Peter never forgets to add "Saint Paul, pah-pah-us (pray for us)".  They are buddies. 

We bought an icon of Saint Paul and gave Peter the honor of holding it as we approached the great Apostle's tomb. 

We touched the icon to Saint Paul's tomb (behind the grate in the photo below).  Above his tomb, in a small gold reliquary, are the chains the bound Saint Paul when he was arrested in Rome. 

After visiting Saint Paul's Basilica, we just couldn't resist returning to Saint Peter's Basilica once more!  We stopped at a famous sculpture of Saint Peter, whose foot has been worn smooth after eight centuries of pilgrims touching it and asking for his intercession.  We touched his foot as well and asked Saint Peter, our little boy's patron Saint and the first Pope, for his intercession for our family and friends.

I love every detail of Saint Peter's Basilica, but the stained glass window of the Holy Spirit is one of my absolute favorite parts.  Throughout Christmas Midnight Mass, the illuminated Holy Spirit surrounded by bold ornate gold carvings, kept catching my eye and drawing me in.  It is breathtaking.  It lifts your soul to almighty God and helps you meditate on His majesty.

Another one of my favorite parts of Saint Peter's Basilica are the twisty, massive pillars near the main altar. 
They are gorgeous!

Our last trip to St. Peter's Basilica was also an opportunity for Dan to pay his respects to one of the Saints he's closest to:  St. Jude the Apostle.  Dan has been asking for St. Jude to pray for him and his intentions since he was in high school.  In our previous visits to St. Peter's Basilica, the area containing the altar above St. Jude's remains was blocked off.  Now that the major Christmas festivities were over, the area opened up again.  Although the basilica staff would not allow us to pray at the altar for long, it was amazing to personally thank one of our most loved Saints for his intercession. 

Also in the same area of the basicilca as St. Jude was the remains of the apostle St. Simon.  The same area also contained an altar built over the traditional spot where St. Peter was crucified upside down and died.

In front of Saint Peter's Basilica is a beautiful, larger-than-life sculpture of Saint Peter!  As you can guess, Saint Peter is another favorite of the Beaudoin's! : )

One last glimpse of Saint Peter's Square, decorated with a Christmas tree and life-sized manger scene.  Picture perfect.  We love this place.

Next we moved on to the last of Rome's four major basilicas:  St. John Lateran.  St. John Lateran is the oldest basilica in Rome and it was commissioned by the Emperor Constantine to be built over the site of a Roman Cavalry Barracks (the cavalry members of this barracks were loyal to one of Constantine's enemies before Constantine became sole emperor).  The powerful Laterani Family of Rome owned the estate and the basilica was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Apostle--so that's were you get the name "St. John Lateran"!

Because this basilica is the oldest in Rome, it is the Pope's home basilica and cathedral (a cathedral is a church used by a bishop...cathedrals hold each bishop's "cathedra" which is his throne).  Along with the Pope's cathedra, this basilica holds many other important items:  the heads of St. Peter and Paul, pieces of the Last Supper table, the doors of the ancient Roman Senate House, and pillars from the Roman Capital's Temple to Jupiter!

The cathedra--throne--of the Pope!

After seeing St. John Lateran, we tried in vain to visit the Catacombs of St. Sebastian.  We got there at 4:35 and the man letting people in said that people couldn't enter anymore after 4:30...shoot!  Well, another reason to come back to Rome one day!

Moving on, we visited a Basilica not far from St. John Lateran's called the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem.  This basilica was built by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine.  At this chapel, she deposited many holy relics she brought back to Rome from the Holy Land.  Among these are:  a nail from Christ's crucifixion, fragments of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified, St. Thomas's incorrupt finger that he put into Jesus's side, a large piece of the cross of St. Dismas (the good thief who was crucified with Jesus), and a fragment of the "Title of the Cross," the sign hung above Jesus's head during the crucifixion.  The Title of the Cross was can still see the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin letters!

The Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem
Relics in the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem

A piece of the Title of the Cross!  This portion shows the word "Nazarene" written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.  One of the reasons researchers think this is authentic is that the Greek and Latin letters are mistakenly written right to left.  Hebrews writers are accustomed to writing right to left for their language, so it makes sense that this was written in Israel.

This is what the whole sign above the crucified Jesus (the Title of the Cross) actually looked like.  The shaded portion of the sign shows the part actually on display in the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem (see the previous picture).

Across the street from Saint John Lateran is a small, humble church called The Church of the Holy Stairs.  This church contains the stairs on which Christ was condemned to death in Pilate's Praetorium.  One can only ascend these holy stairs on their knees.  I visited this church as a high schooler and it left a profound, lasting memory on me.  I knew  then that I had to return to this powerful, prayerful place.  It is so humbling to clumsily crawl, step-by-step, silently, slowly, prayerfully to the top--all the while fixated on the image of our humble, holy Savior on the cross.  It is such a powerful reflection.

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