At the beginning of Advent, to heighten the sense of anticipation, the basilica hides its most important relic, the fragment of the manger where the Infant Jesus was placed, behind screen doors. During the Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve, the crib will be returned to view with a grand procession around the church.
A splendid concert at St. Mary Major marked the close of a triad of Marian feasts -- the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, Our Lady of Loreto on Dec. 10 and Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12.
The timeless Christmas motet "Dies Sanctificatus" by Giovanni PierLuigi da Palestrina, choirmaster of St. Mary Major in 16th century, reminded listeners of the many generations of pilgrims who had celebrated Christmas in the church. Monsignor Valentino Miserachs, present choirmaster of the basilica, revealed the vitality of the tradition of great music at St. Mary Major with his "Laudate Dominum."
An appreciative gesture toward the fine composers of St. Peter's came with the performance of "Rorate Coeli" by Domenico Bartelucci, former choirmaster of the basilica at the Vatican.
An unusual and very beautiful addition to the program was Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, conducted by Francesco Ciampa, winner of the Italian national competition for orchestral direction. By the end of the evening, the dazzle of the magnificent mosaics of the church and the splendor of the sound left everyone in joyous expectation of the glory of Christmas.
The last step toward readying St. Mary Major for the holidays is eagerly awaited. For on Dec. 15, one of the world's oldest Nativity scenes will be put on public display in a new setting, more than 400 years after the chapel in which it was originally placed was demolished during a restoration project.
The Holy Family and the Three Magi were sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio between 1290 and 1292. Arnolfo was commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV to restore the ancient oratory of the Crib, a small chapel to the right of the main altar where the relic of the Crib had been kept for centuries.
Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan Pope, wanted to re-create the first Nativity scene, arranged by St. Francis in 1223 in Greccio as a "tableau vivant," with people playing the parts of the saints.
Arnolfo, both architect and sculptor, designed a new space for the relic, adding the figures of the ox and the ass, St. Joseph and the Three Kings. While there must have been a figure of the Virgin and Child, it was destroyed in the 16th century and replaced by the present statue.
The figures, about 3 feet high, were carved in relief against a backdrop painted blue and highlighted to represent a night sky. The relic of the Crib was placed in the center of the arrangement on a disk of purple stone.
The entire chapel was transplanted as a block by Pope Sixtus V when he built the majestic Sistine Chapel for the Blessed Sacrament in 1585. It was placed under the altar in a special crypt, which was only opened on Christmas Eve.
The chapel of the Crib has a special connection with two of the greatest saints of the Roman Counter-Reformation. St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, celebrated his first Mass there and St. Gaetan, founder of the Theatine order, had a vision of the Virgin Mary handing him the Christ Child while praying in the chapel.
But this year, because of necessary restorations to the crypt, the Nativity will be moved to the Museum of St. Mary Major. There, visitors will be able to see the figures with their skillfully carved expressions of joy and wonder, examples of the true spirit of Christmas.