Tuesday, October 1, 2013

It's Supposed to Be Overwhelming

Well, today was loaded - a trip to Assisi which left Rome at 7.30 a.m. and got back at 7.30 p.m., followed by the (now) typical lovely Roman restaurant supper. Sometimes it's just so darn tough being me!
However, that means I didn't have time to tell you about yesterday, when I got to have a nice day-long visit with this guy:
Not as blurry in real life
Yes, St. Peter. Did I mention what a lousy photographer I am? Yes, yesterday morning was spent in the largest church in the world, the mother church, in a certain sense, of all Western Christianity. The afternoon was spent underneath it.

I am not a good enough writer (frankly) to do anything resembling justice to St. Peter's. It is overwhelming on every level -- size, aesthetics, history, art. Bernini's altar and baldacchino, Michaelangelo's Pieta and dome... oh my. The mosaics are on a level that I have never seen before; the most moving one for me personally, is the mosaic depicting the slaying of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts 4, who lied about money promised to God and were struck down. It greets the priests--the Altar of the Lie--as they come out from the sacristy to celebrate Mass. Sobering, challenging, serious--perfect. Priest of God, do not do one thing and live something else, or you will indeed, one way or another, be struck down.
(not my photo...)
But I am not an art historian, nor am I gifted with any great writing ability of description. I am a theologian (if I am anything much as a writer), and so it is this afternoon, which I have no photographs of at all because they are not permitted, that I wish to reflect on.

The dome of St. Peter's has, at the very top, a depiction of God the Father. A plumb line drawn down from the center of that dome would hit the dove which is at the top of Bernini's baldacchino, symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit. A plumb line from that dove would hit the center of the high altar--God the Son made incarnate in Jesus Christ, made a physical living presence at each Mass.

A plumb line descending from the altar through the floor down to the earth would hit the bones of a man, age 65-70, a strong man who worked hard most of his life, whose bones were found at the level of the soil consistent with AD 60s, and whose bones at some later date were wrapped in imperial purple and gold.

Technically, we do not know whose bones these are. But we have a 2000 year tradition that St. Peter was crucified and buried on Vatican Hill, that a small monument was erected there by the early Crhsitians of Rome, and that the emperor Constantine, after the Battle of Milvian Bridge in the early 4th century, built the original basilica over the site, taking care to place the high altar on the actual site of Peter's grave, marked with that monument.

It was only in the 1970s, after a 30 year project of excavations under St. Peter's, that these bones came to light and were identified with almost certain probability as those of the fisherman from Galilee, this rough man, impulsive with an odd mixture of weakness and strength, cowardice and courage--a man, in other words--upon whose life and death the Church's mission, from God the Father through the Spirit in Christ, was established and passed on to the world. That means that this:

Chair of Peter (blurriness added)
rests on this:
Sampling of the bones of St. Peter
There is deep theological matter here. History matters. God entered history. A man was born, who was God. He lived and died, and before He died He chose men to be his apostles, to be the 'sent ones' of the 'Sent One', the One sent by the Father by the overshadowing of the Spirit of the Virgin. And this one man, chief among the apostles, Simon who is called Peter, lived and died, really, and the place of his dying has become this vast monument to the life and death and life again of God in the world, and the living embodiment of the Church's commission by Christ to teach the Gospel to the nations.

It is overwhelming, on every level. I said that to our seminarian Michael who is to be ordained day after tomorrow. His response: 'It's supposed to be!' Amen to that. Tomorrow (God willing) I'll tell you about my day in Assisi!

1 comment:

  1. i was beginning to read this to someone who asked "how do we know it is Peter's bones. Your explanation was just in time.
    Thank you for giving us that. How totally cool.
    and thanks for your impressions.
    when i first walked into St. Peter's, I had not prepared myself, and I physically was thrown back, lost my footing.
    overwhelming is a good word. Thanks be to God for the large and the small. Thanks for sharing your trip with us.


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