29th March : Our Lady “Aracoeli” – Altar Of Heaven

Our Lady “Aracoeli” – Altar Of Heaven

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St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven is the name of a Basilica in Rome.  It dates to the 6th century, and is located on the highest point of Capitoline Hill, on the site where a Sibyl is supposed to have prophesied to Emperor Augustus the birth of Christ.  The name “Ara Coeli” (Altar of Heaven) is based on a legend which tells how Augustus enjoyed a vision in which he saw the Virgin and Child standing on an altar of Heaven.  The chapel of St. Helena in this church is supposed to be on the very spot where the prophecy was made and where subsequently Augustus erected an altar to “the First-Born of God”.   On the high altar of the church is the Madonna of the Altar of Heaven, an image in Byzantine style.  Here is the legend:

At a certain time during the reign of Caesar Augustus (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.) the Roman Senate, wishing to vest him with a supreme honor, resolved to proclaim him god.  This pleased his vanity, but for some strange reason, he advised the senate to withhold the honor until he consulted the Sibyl of Tivoli regarding it.  She requested him to give her three days before she answered, during which she invoked “those on high” to enlighten her.  After the three days she said to the emperor, “Augustus, most powerful sir, hearken!  There is no one should be called god unless he is God’ you are only a man, though famous.  Another, who is truly God is about to descend upon the earth and He will assume flesh in the womb of a most Pure Virgin.”  Then a brilliant light shone forth from the sky; it churned and swirled, forming a halo.  Within its center Augustus saw a most beautiful Lady with a Baby in her arms.  She stood upon a splendid white altar and her figure was surrounded by little angels and from heaven a voice rang out, “This is the promised young girl who will give a Savior to the world, and that is the altar of the Son of God.”  Overcome by the marvelous sight, Augustus fell to his knees, with his forehead to the ground, remained a long time in silent adoration of the Mother and Child.  He announced to the Senate and all the people that he must renounce the title they proposed, and told of his vision.  Then he commanded that an altar be erected on the Capitoline Hill dedicated to the Only-Begotten Son of God and His Mother.  This legend is inscribed on the wall of the chapel of St. Helena.  The image of the Madonna of Ara Coeli was crowned on March 29, 1636.

The Church Santa Maria Ara Coeli is a great gathering place for Roman children during Christmas time.  The attraction is a life-size statue of the Christ child, carved by a Franciscan monk living in Jerusalem in the 15th century, and made of wood from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.  Being unable to finish it, the monk set it aside in a corner of his cell until he could get the proper color of paint; that night, the angels came and finished it for him.  Later the monk was recalled to Rome and he carried the statue with him, unfortunately his ship ran into a storm and was wrecked near the port of Leghorn.  The statue was lost, but floated to the shore where it was recovered and eventually found its way to the Church of the Madonna Ara Coeli.

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