26 February 2011

Some Roman Reflections

The following is going to go up on the VTS Anglican Commentary at some point, but I owe you all some kind of comment on my Rome trip, so you get a sneak peak. Sorry for my absence here lately! It's been an exciting but extremely busy semester so far. More info...sometime. Enjoy!

The first of our two weeks in Rome was spent studying the history and architecture of the early churches there. One of my more fascinating experiences that week was my visit to the Basilica dei Santi Cosma e Damiano, the first site of Christian worship in what had been the center of pagan Rome. The church was converted to that purpose from its former identity as part of the Temple of Peace by Pope Felix in the late 520s. Felix added a beautiful Hellenistic mosaic of Christ at the parousia and an accompanying inscription describing how “THE TEMPLE BEFORE NAMED AS SACRED HAS INCREASED IN HONOR.” The church's nearest neighbor is the circular Temple of Jupiter Stator (Jupiter the Stayer), a beautifully preserved structure that at one time served the basilica as a narthex.

What's going on at Santi Cosma e Damiano, as far as I can tell, is a coming together of two somewhat troubling aspects of the way the Greco-Roman milieu influenced early Christianity. On the one hand, we see in Felix's triumphant inscription the victorious spirit of Christianity's great coming-out party. I suppose this party was fed not just by the memory of persecutions and marginalization but by the way Constantine and his successors sought to use the church as a force to unite the empire. On the other hand, we sense in the Hellenistic mosaic itself and in the church's one-time narthex something of the Ancient Roman civic spirit, the spirit of aloof detachment.

We encountered the vestiges of that spirit in many of the churches we visited. It was like seeing represented artistically and architecturally what Bishop Tom Breidenthal describes theologically and ethically when he recounts St. Augustine's struggle to decide how other people ought to enter in to our lives of faith (Breidenthal led our second week's reflections on the ethics of power and the church's vocation of service to and solidarity with the poor). Augustine in the end decided that we are to enjoy each other in God and be pushed by God into relationship with one another rather than being pulled out of such messy entanglements. But many of our experiences in Rome, including our church visits, reminded me how easy it is for us to lose track of this hard-won Augustinian insight. I pray that our church buildings and our congregations will be places where we are sent out for the messy work of relationship and service to the stranger.

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