Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A visit to the Catacombs

This week, our class continued its journey through St. Paul's letters, with his letter to the Christian community right here in Rome. It's kind of amazing to read (or re-read) these words in the very place where they were first read, where they were received not as scripture, but as a letter from our friend Paul, written to encourage us in the Christian life.

To bring the history and the scripture to life, and to take advantage of our location, we had class today at the Catacombs of St. Priscilla. You can read a bit more about these catacombs there (or here), and also see some of the artwork that I'm going to mention below. (Sorry, they requested that we not take photos, so I don't have any of my own to offer you.)

The thing about these catacombs, though, that is nearly impossible to convey through text is their incredible expanse. By law, no one could be buried within the city limits of Rome, so there were burial sites outside of town. Many pagan Romans cremated their dead; since Christians and Jews did not, most of the burial sites belong to Christians, and some to Jews. These particular catacombs (Priscilla) were used to bury Christians as early as the 2nd century. By the 4th century (with the legalization of Christianity), it became a site where thousands were being buried. Over the course of a little less than 300 years, more than 40,000 people were buried here. This occurred in 3 separate levels, where each level has many corridors with spaces for bodies from floor to ceiling on both sides. If you walked each and every corridor, you would walk about 13 kilometers (that's about 8 miles!). Quite a few of those 40,000 were popes or martyrs, but many were just run-of-the-mill Christians, doing their best to live lives worthy of the gospel.

There are also several spaces that are more like larger mausoleums or chapels and gathering spaces. Just in case you've ever heard the stories that Christians actually hid out in the catacombs, living in them in the days when Christianity could get you killed, that's not true. These were simply burial sites. But the size of them makes it easy to see why people imagined that someone might have lived down there, and been able to hide for years in this network of tunnels and corridors from anyone who might have come looking.

The ancient artwork present here really gives one a taste of what was important to the early Christians in Rome. The most ancient portrayal of Mary (holding the Christ-child) is found on these walls (it dates to around 200 AD). There are pictures of Christ the Good Shepherd, of Jonah and the whale, of the binding of Isaac, of peacocks and doves and phoenixes. There are little marks on some of the graves--fish, the Chi Ro, olive trees. Little marks offered like prayers, connecting the deceased to Christ and the Christian community. And the excavations have also revealed that it was very common for mourners to fill little lamps with oil and leave them by the graves, so that their loved ones would be like the wise virgins whose lamps were still burning when the Bridegroom returned.

After our tour, we gathered together and continued our study of Paul. The letter to the Romans is some serious theology. It might reasonably be given credit (or blame) for the conversion of Augustine and the Protestant Reformation. We dove into a serious conversation about justification through faith and/or works, which was driven mostly by the text of Paul's letter. But as I think back upon that conversation and the art on those graves, I think they made the point much more clearly than what I was able to say. They marked the graves with the cross, with symbols and imagery of Christ, or with the olive tree that is the church. Righteousness matters, but our righteousness does not matter as much as the righteousness of God as revealed in Christ. Little or nothing remains in these graves of any claims to righteousness, but only the claim that these people lived and died as Christ's.

It's kind of funny. I tend to think of Rome, and especially of the catacombs as a place of martyrs and saints. It was good to be reminded that in this space and time, like in every place and every era, there were certainly martyrs and saints, but the vast majority of Christians were just ordinary folks struggling through trying (and hoping and praying) to live lives which marked them as Christ's own.

Friday, November 18, 2011

On the foolishness we are called to

This week, we did something a little different: we actually met in our classroom at the CEA Global Campus. This gave us an opportunity to explore Paul's first letter to the Corinthians in a little more depth than we are able to do on site visits.

One theme that we spent some time on, however is the contrast between worldly wisdom and divine wisdom, worldly power and divine power:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:22-25)

Rome is such a wonderful place to consider human wisdom and power and its divine counterparts. It is also a strange place to do so. What changes when the Pantheon (originally built to honor all the Roman gods) is rededicated as Santa Maria ad Martyres? The two most tempting answers are "everything" and "nothing but a name," I think. The latter is far too cynical. The Roman gods, once called upon to protect Rome, bless her armies, and keep the city and the empire safe through a very "worldly" sort of power are far different from Mary and the martyrs, whose only real power is in their faith and their willingness to say yes to God regardless of the cost. And yet it is also true that many throughout the history of the Church and the empire have prayed and have acted precisely as though Christian saints and martyrs might intercede in exactly this way: blessing armies and swords with an extra dose of worldly power and might.

The foolishness of God, it seems to me, was to become human not as some powerful king or emperor, but as a low-born carpenter-turned-rabbi whose greatest power lay in his submission to the will of the Father, and to those who would execute him. Sorting through, however, what then counts as foolishness or wisdom for those who would follow him is no easier nor harder today than 19 centuries ago, nor in Rome than in Providence.

Monday, November 14, 2011

St Paul outside the Walls

This past week, our class ventured forth to the beautiful basilica known as St. Paul outside the Walls. This is the second largest basilica in Rome (second to St. Peter's, of course). Tradition (which, in this case, is nearly unquestioned) holds that St. Paul was beheaded about two miles from where the basilica now stands. After his execution, a Roman Christian by the name of Lucina begged for his remains. She was given permission to take them and she buried them just off the Via Ostiense. Almost immediately, a small monument was erected and the place became a site of veneration and pilgrimage. Once Constantine was emperor, a larger building project was begun. Of course, various raids and fires led to stages of restoration and reconstruction throughout the centuries. But this place is the uncontested resting spot of St. Paul's remains, and has been a constant site of veneration as such for more than 1900 years.

This basilica is a very interesting place to visit, particularly because visitors are struck both by its age and by its identity as a constant and contemporary place of pilgrimage. The Holy Door was redone for the Jubilee year in 2000, with images both ancient and modern, and the main entrance has images done for the Pauline year of 2008-9. One gets a sense of the place not as simply a history lesson, but also as the site of a living faith.

My students and I are reading five of St. Paul's letters this semester. For me, at least, it is a powerful thing to read and discuss his words sitting in the shadow of the basilica built over his bones. We spent much of our time in class this week discussing Paul's letter to the Philippians. Of course, the famous "Christ hymn" (Phil 2:5-11) looms large in this text:

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I wonder if these words sing quite so loudly anywhere in the world as at this spot, built over the bones of the author, who himself died a martyr's death. Of course, the strange answer is that they sing just as well in every spot where a Christian lives a life (or dies a death) that proclaims his or her sharing the mind of Christ, His obedience, His humility.

This is, of course, one of the wonderful gifts of St. Paul to the Church, one that I'm trying to communicate to my students. St. Paul wrote these letters that were originally meant to speak to very particular concerns of very particular communities of Christians. And yet, somehow (divine inspiration?!), he offered words that speak of Christian faith and to Christian communities in ways that seem not to be bound (for the most part) by the particularities of time and place.