Rome was beautiful. The sun warmed our skin and the blue skies lifted our hearts. We were surrounded by ancient architecture, works of art, deliciously fresh food, Italian wine …. and yet for all the beauty there was a darker side to Rome that tugged at my heart.
We walked in and around ancient monuments celebrating the Roman victory in the Jewish War; the very war Jesus spoke against. We toured the colosseum built by Jewish slaves from the very same war, used to persecute and murder both human and animal. I walked through the ancient Roman prison where both Peter and Paul may have been held and felt the senseless loss of countless lives. For all the incredible benefits of the Roman empire, there was also brutality, persecution and oppression.
Peter and Paul are rightly honoured in Christian tradition, but they were still just two people risking their lives to follow God. So many Christians were murdered at the hands of the Romans - it could have been any one of us in that prison cell in Rome or any other part of the empire all those years ago. It was Tacitus who wrote of Emperor Nero’s cruel persecution of Chirstian leaders, blaming them for a devastating fire in Rome and burning many alive as lamps during the dark nights. As we read the Bible during advent, let’s strip away the pedestals we’ve placed each character on and remember that they are like us, on mission with God. Let’s remember their humanity and be encouraged that in God’s strength we too can follow Jesus in courageous ways.
The theme of humanity continues in the countless renaissance paintings that adorn every church, museum, galley, and sacred space. I was particularly struck by The Deposition by Raphael, a large oil painting in the Villa Borghese gallery that depicts Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdelene, and Jesus’ other disciples carrying the limp body of Jesus from the cross to the tomb. The expressions of pain, confusion and loss on their faces spoke to me of the emotions in the lives of those who loved Jesus and saw him murdered. The limp wounded body of Jesus reminded me of our God’s human nature. Death reminds us of our earthily mortality and of our humanity, and even more so, of God’s humanity in his incarnation. It roots our faith in time and space, reminding us that we have a saviour who knows what it’s like to walk on this earth, to feel our joy and our pain, and to suffer.
It was when I saw a picture by Reubens of Saint Sebastian being nurtured by angels after his death that my thoughts were lifted from our humanity to heaven. In this picture, St Sebastian’s wounded body is carefully being healed and tended by heavenly beings. As they were caring for his body, it felt like they were saying “What have they done to you?” It was such a juxtaposition: the destructive, twisted nature of humanity and the healing of heaven. Humanity has such a propensity to control, to be violent, and to hunger for war, but God’s kingdom is full of freedom, gentleness, and peace.
So, what did I take home from this visit to the eternal city? A deeper appreciation of my own mortality, the vulnerability and humanity of the saints, the beauty of Jesus made human for our salvation, and the radical kindness of heaven.
Jo Allen Director: South West