Monday, November 05, 2007

Still the same

Its ceilings and walls are covered with symbols that would be recognised only by the Christians who slipped into the villa from the street. From the outside, nobody would know that the house was used as a church. Images of twisting vines, baskets of bread and fish, doves carrying olive twigs, dolphins and anchors, a banquet, a typically Roman matron with her son on her lap, a shepherd with a lamb draped over his shoulders, flowing streams, men collecting rainwater as it poured down in torrents from the sky, a group of seated people eating an al fresco picnic of bread and fish… who would know that each was a symbol with a meaning that today, two thousand years after they were first painted, we still have not plummeted to the depths?

Situated on the perimeter of the Forum, was this house church active when Peter and Paul were imprisoned in the Mamertine, literally only a seven-minute walk away? Might the owners of this house have been amongst the very first recipients of Paul’s letters, written in that same prison? Might they have been responsible for preparing and delivering food to the incarcerated Apostles? Was this a house where the Apostles themselves were familiar guests? Did Peter and Paul drink water from the two wells still clearly visible (and functional if their protective covers were to be removed)?

Before ever there was the freedom to build churches, this was one of the houses where the remains of martyrs were brought and kept with love: Philip, James, Denis… That is why the church that, today, houses the villa is more than worthy of its name of The Most Holy Twelve Apostles (Sanctissimi Dodici Apostoli), for how many left this house only to find themselves prisoners and the intended victims in the Colosseum, a mere half-mile away? How many came here to find some comfort after their friends and relatives received a death sentence and were executed after unspeakable torture?

How many non-Christian visitors to the house would have realised that they were seeing scenes of the Good Shepherd, whose death on the Cross was too horrible for the early Church to portray? Would they have known that before their eyes was a scene of the feeding of the Five Thousand, or the Living Water that had come down from Heaven? The Last Supper, especially with only seven men gathered around the table (seven being a ‘perfect’ number with mystical significance) would have been beyond their understanding.

But what about the woman and the baby? That was easy even for a pagan to understand – or was it? There are two images in which the woman and her son are identical except for size. Both are clad in white robes on which a broad blue band extends vertically from shoulder to hem, and yet, even then, there is a difference. These are not mere pictures: they are statements of faith in the Incarnation. It is not a coincidence that the smaller of the two scenes shows the mother and child receiving caskets of gifts from three foreigners… the Magi? This is a very, very early Nativity scene!

Neither is it a coincidence that the larger picture is merely a handspan above the altar under which were placed the remains of the martyr, Denis, in an alcove in which one or two of the tombstones are marked with the strange (to an outsider) markings of a palm, a dove or a chi-rho.

The artists died centuries ago, never knowing that their devotional images, providing not only decoration but also instruction to the illiterate, would also teach us, the continuity of all that we believe today. The Gospel stories are unmistakably there for us to see in freedom and without fear of our lives. Their narratives also show us something else that is intrinsic to life today.

From the very earliest days of Christianity, a woman was honoured only in second place to her Son. A woman was deliberately painted over the tombs of martyrs even if they were men who had died. A woman is shown receiving tribute on behalf of her Son, a woman who, in a marginally older fresco on the other side of Rome, is shown, again over an altar in her honour, receiving food and drink from the midwives who had just helped her give birth to a Son.

Mary, you were there, at the very beginning of the Church, giving hope and courage in the face of unspeakable risks. Be with us today. Two thousand years later, we still need a mother.

God bless,
Sr. Janet