This may sound a little cliche--and I just hate to sound cliche--but Rome is my favorite city in Europe (Paris is a close second...oh I am cliche aren't I?!). But truly, there is something so breathtaking about walking through a modern city--with cars whizzing by and people rushing off to work--and then suddenly seeing the Colosseum or Palentine Hill. I just love the juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern.
When I lived in Italy, Rome was my hub for travel every
weekend, since it was just two hours south of my quaint little Perugia by train. Of course I adored Papa Mio, the darling Italian man whose ristorante I frequented when passing through town, and the sights: the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish steps (where great writers like Keats and Shelley sat and wrote when they came to escape the cold of London), the Vatican, and the Colosseo. But it was a trip with my history of early Christianity class--and my professor, Alessandro, who looked like a Greek god and lived in a studio on the river with his gorgeous wife--that caused me to fall in love with the tension between old and new.
We traipsed around the city with Alessandro for hours as he pointed out all of the landmarks, showed us the sites of current archaeological excavation (it is amazing how much is still being uncovered all over the city!), and told us about the architectural significance of several centuries-old basilicas. Finally, we approached the Colosseum and saw where archaeologists are digging up the gladiators' barracks. And then, from a tiny side street tucked behind the Colosseum, we entered a little twelfth century basilica called San Clemente (St. Clement's in English). The preservation of the basilica is exquisite, but what's even more amazing are the treasures that lie beneath it.
First, you make your way down a long stone staircase that leads to a house church where early believers worshiped. The Collegio San Clemente has deemed it a fourth century place of worship, but because it is connected to a large house that is still under excavation, Alessandro told us that it could date back to before the time of Constantine, when Christians worshiped in the houses of wealthier church members. I get chills thinking of early believers fearlessly worshiping the one God just steps away from the Colosseum, where they would be executed if they were discovered!
Below the middle level lies a first century house and the hall of a mysteric cult devoted to the worship of Mithra, the Roman sun god. Worship of Mithra was widespread in ancient Rome, but the mysteric cults associated with Mithra were just that--mysterious. There are few writings about practice, as the religious rites were passed to only a few initiated members. As we walked down the tiny staircase, Alessandro pointed out the cave-like room where cultists would have been baptized into the following by the blood of a bull, which was sacrificed in the room above.
All of that sounds pretty gross, but once we were back out in the crisp October air and lounging by the Tiber, Alessandro explained the significance of San Clemente's three tiers. Apparently, the ancient city is subject to reverse erosion. Instead of the earth being washed away little by little, as is the case in some cities, the sediment from the Tiber has built up over time so that the city gets a little higher each year. To preserve the city, its patrons must rebuild their homes, businesses, and places of worship every few centuries. (You can watch a brief tour of the basilica's three levels here. It takes a few minutes to load, so be patient.)
But what's truly compelling about this story is that early Christians were intent on replacing the old, pagan places with new, Christian places. They understood that at the center of the Gospel is God's constant working to make all things new. They understood that the Kingdom being ushered in was meant to replace the old earthly kingdom (2 Peter 3:13). The Roman believers represented this principle very visibly as they transformed the old into new in their city, even as they themselves were being made new by the covenant blood of Jesus.
As we prepare to celebrate our Lord's birth, some are disturbed by the many pagan roots of the holiday we call Christmas. Indeed, December 25 was chosen for the observance not because of its historical accuracy, but because that date coincides with the Roman festival to Mithra, the very same god whose worship site lies buried beneath San Clemente.
The connection is disturbing, as it shows how easily we Christians fall prey to the trappings of this world. I would argue, however, that this connection can also be a source of joy for us as we dwell on the lesson of the Roman Christians, who were eager to portray God's work in the world by physically exchanging the old for the new. To be sure, there are still many secular manifestations of the Christmas holiday. But just as it is our Jesus (and not Mithra) who is worshiped in a little basilica down the street from the Colloseum, so is He the One whose coming we celebrate at Christmas.
Let us rejoice that He is gloriously at work in the world, securing for us a "city that is to come" (Hebrews 13:13-15)!