Italy overall was surprising. It was fantastic to visit Rome and all the ancient sites. But the country appeared to be very run down. There was graffiti everywhere, and bad graffiti at that. Apartment living is the norm. Unlike Hong Kong, which is full of enormous skyscrapers, the apartments of Italy seem 4-8 stories hight and in the main, in very poor shape. One tour guide suggested that the Romans gave the world apartment living. They need to rebuild themselves now!
The driving here is chaotic to put it nicely. It seems reflective of life. There is a semblance of order but the rule appears to be: stick to right, at least most of the time, however, anything goes; have courage, just don't hit anyone. Somehow it works. We had a MacDonald's meal in Bari, and the same rule applied. Line up and then ignore the lines and go for it. We tended to get boxed out, but we are learning.
Rome is so narrow and crowded! People drive scooters and smart cars and park at every possible angle. Roads are amazingly narrow and one has to have one's wits about you at all times to avoid being run down.
Beggars, as in Hong Kong but with more frequency, are around the place. They are mainly disabled and elderly. The elderly women would have a can with a rosary and/or a picture of a saint, pope or biblical character (usually Mary), and sit in the prayer position face down and immobile awaiting and coin. They are found at all the holy places and it is ironical to see them there whilst inside there is utterly millions of dollars worth of painting etc.
The ancient area of Rome left us with mixed feelings. On the one hand it was amazing visiting the Colosseum, Forum, Palatine, Pantheon, St Peters, Vatican and the many churches. The Colosseum and Forum speak of the power of Rome particularly in the Imperial period. Rome, must have blown the mids of visitors. It was 4x the size of any other ancient city. Caesar's seemed to do two things in particular. First, they would expand the Empire and bring the wealth back. Second, they would build stuff: arches, temples, forums etc. What must it have been like for Paul to come as a prisoner in chains, to go up the Palatine with its flowing gardens and opulence, and then through the temples and forums and arches into the prison. I had read that scholars are dubious that Paul was incarcerated in the Mammertime Prison; yet it seemed an obvious place for his initial imprisonment and perhaps he was there as he wrote Phil 1:12-13 of being in guards among Roman soldiers who knew the reason for his imprisonment i.e. for Christ. Perhaps he was initially in this place and then perceived as little threat and moved to his own apartment near the Jewish quarter beside the Tiber (we visited this, interesting!). Tradition has it that his house is there and a church is built upon it. Perhaps after preachign and teaching for two years he was reimprisoned there for trial and perhaps remained there until his death. Or did he get out, do another missionary journey, and then return to Rome only to face Caesar again and his death?
The temples in the Forum dedicated to Julius Ceaser and Augustus spoke powerfully of the Imperial Cult. Supposedly it was stronger in Asia, yet here it is found in the centre of the Empire, the seat of Roman power. Clearly, alongside Saturn, Castor and Polliux, the Emperor was deified and worshiped after their death. The big guns appear to be Julius, Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian. Less mentioned were Caligula, Claudius and Nero.
The various buildings around the Forum recall Trajan in particular, from the early second century. These include a pillar, markets and his forum. The interchange between Pliny and Trajan came to mind as the threat of Christianity was growing and they sought to work out how to deal with this pernicious superstition. The impact of the Fall of Jerusalem in AD70 is found with images on Trajan's Arch of Jewish prisoners of war and the money's from the pillage of Jerusalem used for yet more building projects in Rome.
The Palatine hills where Rome was founded around Romulus and Remus (mythology aside) must have been a grand place with Emperor's residences and other important buildings. The whole forum must have been astonishing gleaming in white marble and adorned with frescos and mosaics.
The hippodrome of Domitian must have been amazing, a huge aquatheatre in which they enacted naval battles. No doubt the flowing gardens, gloriously adorned buildings etc, would have been both beautiful and awe-inspiring.
All this speaks to me of the courage of the first Christians who dared to follow a peasant Roman-crucified Jew who preached peace, love, equality, liberty and hope rather than hubris and power and the Roman pantheon and emperor! They dared to resist and the world has never been the same. They dreamed of a better world and so I too dream.
The Colosseum was stunning. Built in about 80 by Titus and then Vespasian, to me it represented the complete antithesis of everything Jesus. It speaks of military and political power and might, of brutality and blood lust. It seated 60,000 mad people longing to see blood. People sat in accord with their social status, the poorer at the top, the richer and powerful closer to the action. The Emperor sat on the left as you enter the arena, the senators on the right. It was not the place of Christian killing aside from Ignatius and Telemachus (tradition says). However, it was a place of appalling atrocities.
The daily progam involved utter barbarism. It began in the morning with wild animals fighting each other. Imagination goes mad as you consider lions fighting bears, rhinos fighting hordes of hyena etc. All the animals were starved for the combat and the crowds must have gone mad as they fought to the death.
After this came the public executions of criminals, nice.
Then came the main event, the curtain raisers over, the Gladiators. These were highly trained warriors. Beside the Colosseum is an excavated training camp. They lived in these camps, trained for 9 hours a day in all sorts of methods of combat. They were mean lean fighting machines. They were not all big men contrary to our thought, for the average man was a short man, around 5' 3''. One guide quipped about fighting dwarves! If they lasted 7 years they were granted freedom. Those who lasted were public heros. They were the Richie McCaw's of their world. Men who defied the odds and overcame.
Apparently they had agents who cried out, 'show me the money!' They took up to 80% of the warriors substantial pay. Nothing has changed!
So for the ancient Roman, such was sport. We moan about rugby and league or even boxing, but they are tame beside the madness of the Romans. Initially there were a few events a year, but at its zenith the games occurred 150 days a year, almost every second day. When an Emperor brought home a whole load of prisoners of war, the games ensued with these warriors 'canon-fodder' for the gladiators. As the gladiators fought, parts of the stage would open with trapdoors or even overturn, and fresh animals were introduced. One had to have one's wits about oneself!
The floor of the stadium was wooden, with sand atop to absorb the blood, nice!
When someone died, in came the slaves in black to bundle them away for quick burial in a pit - unless a family member was there to take them away. Not that every gladiator's defeat ended in death. They could appeal to the Emperor to be saved. The crowd would cry sword or save, and the emperor with the move off the thumb would decide his fate.
The Caesar's were at the heart of the show. On entry the gladiator would salute him seated as he was on the left of the auditorium. They would cry out, 'we who are about to die, salute you.'
All in all, to me, it speaks of the clash of kingdoms and power between the non-violence of Christ and his message of peace and love - compared with rule by barberous violence which besets the kingdoms of the world. We cannot however just blame the emperors, people loved the contests!
The games thankfully died out as the Roman Empire waned and its wealth diminished. The place became a market and even a garden. In the 18th century a number of exotic plants were found there no doubt having come with the animals brought in for the games centuries earlier.
It is amazing that Rome's population at the time was 1 million. Athens was around 275,000. No other city approached 1 million until the industrial age. Most of these people were slaves. As Rome's power and wealth dissipated, the population declined, and the games were unsustainable. In fact Christianity had a good deal to do with this as people became less violent and concerned for status.
To me the Colosseum represents the disgrace of human power and lust. Thanks be to God that he has revealed to the world another way, the way of the cross, where power is found in selflessness, sacrifice, service, sufferng, humility i.e love! Thanks that true humanity is found in a crucified Messiah.
The other side of Rome was disturbing. The Pantheon, the Vatican, St Peter's and the many church's are amazing! The art is astonishing. At one level they speak of faith.
Yet for Emma and me they left more question than answers. Where are the worshipers of today. These places are historic places for photo opportunities and there are few there from this society worshiping. Faith is more historic than real and present. Faith is replaced by historic interest.
The nature and content of faith is also deeply disturbing. Mary dominates! She is more present than Jesus, God and the Spirit, who rarely gets a mention if at all. Jesus is the little boy beside Mary, and she is the main event. It seems that Mary, God and Mary'ss her son are the trinity; in that order. She as goddess!
The saints and the popes are of equal importance to every biblical figure and even Christ himself. Images of holy wars are accepted as part of the tradition, even though in them the power of Christ is utterly subverted by the power of the sword. No problem with the church taking up sword and political power in its quest for world dominion. I found this deeply disturbing when one realises who and what Jesus was and how he came to change a murderous world.
Then there is this question: when does image or statue reflection cross the line and become idolatry and a violation of the first two commandments to worship God alone and not to worship images. I thought of Paul in Athens who noted their penchant for worshiping idols, and wondered, does this cross the line? I watched worshipers touch the feet of the wonderful sculpture of St Peter in St Peter's beside his supposed grave, there was real reverence there; to whom? For what? Christ? Mmmmm?
Then there is the problem of faith and wealth. There are billions of dollars worth of art in these places. Yet true faith cares for the poor, the marginalised, the despised. True religion resists injustice and oppression. Yet I heard more religion as oppression and was disturbed. Faith feels fused to power and wealth in Rome!
It is ironical that Christianity was initially fiercely persecuted and marginalised in Rome. As it became dominant it seems, that it became the oppressor; power corrupts! To me, this violates the pattern of Christ.
So, all in all, we were left with more questions than answers. There is something powerful in Rome and its churches and history. Yet, like all Christian history, it is flawed, an admixture of the glorious with false religion, syncretism and human faith-failure.
I feel very much a Protestant as I write this. Unlike some other Protestants I will not write off all Catholics. However, I can never see myself turning to this form of the faith. I will leave the details to God, but for me the reformation with charismatic renewal.
One feature of Rome is the way in which ancient pagan worship sites are taken over by Catholicism. Take the Pantheon for example; once a temple to the pantheon of Rome, it is now a church to Mary. Take the Vatican, once a place pagans killed Christians including Peter, now the site of the centre of the Catholic faith. The take over of the pagan world is apparent. Yet the absorption of paganism into 'Christian' faith in the time of Christendom proves that 'the Empire strikes back.'
Much more dangerous than direct religious takeover with force is the subtle subversion through ideas and syncretism. This is where the real battle takes place and where Satan is 'at his best.' Subtly, over time, he corrupts that which is beautiful and innocent. Human sin needs no help most of the time as lust for power and greed work together to mar, flaw, corrupt, infect, corrode, and subtly turn that which is beautiful and sacred into that which it overcame.
Great Christian movements inevitably become flawed. The problem is usually pride as belief in the movement becomes the movement and the one behind the movement is lost in the sense of human need to defend. The fight that goes on is not just for orthodoxy, but orthopraxy, orthodoxology, orthodiakonia and orthokardia. We need constant renewal and the key to this is humility.
Yet here is the challenge. We are not to leave the world but remain in it engaged with it. We cannot just withdraw which feels so attractive. This is our deathknell. But as we remain engaged, we cannot help but be influenced and corrupted; assimilated to the world and its magnatic pull. The challlenge is to be able to stand outside ourselves while in full participation and self-critique against the gospel. We are to be constantly repentant and engaged.
How? Sola Scriptura! Sola Fidei! The pattern of the cross: selflessness, sacrifice, service, suffering and humility i.e. love. Walking in worship! All these things keep us earthed to Jesus and he is the key. We must become less, and he more! Not just the victorious Jesus, yes to him; but the crucified Jesus! Amen.