Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Layers of History, Layers of Death

Normally I start out a daily blog with some snapshot of where I've been, something that's evocative of the place or the landscape.
OK, just so you know where I'm writing from:

But, in actuality, I have no pictures to offer of the place we really visited yesterday, for we were deep underneath the main floor of the Basilica of St. Peter's, in a place removed from the hordes of tourists who were walking just a few meters overhead.
In 1940, Pope Pius XI began an excavation underneath the Vatican, in order to ascertain the burial place of the man whose martyrdom consecrated that site for all eternity, the person to whom Jesus had handed over the keys to his kingdom. That excavation led to fascinating results, the first of which was the finding of a Necropolis, one that had artifacts and artwork pointing in a straight line to the dawn of Christianity in Rome.
This trek is called a Scavi tour; only a few dozen people can do the thing daily, because it is so cramped. And, to be honest, it is not for every tourist. You need to reserve a date months in advance, and you have to be willing to put up with dank, dark, and very confined places. Count me in.

As our guide wound us along the route, she pointed out (by pointing to the ceiling) just where we were in reference to the teeming Basilica overhead. But down here, all was eerily quiet, the air was more than close – it was oppressively pushing in on all sides.

Bit by bit, we were brought back in history: to the Roman Mausoleum that first claimed rights to this small plot of land, then to the First Century A.D., when artwork began to combine the images of Christ with the Roman Sun-god Helios. We were getting closer.

Finally, we were led deep beneath the main altar of the Vatican above. Our guide explained that St. Peter's bones had been moved out of its original burial spot, that spot being a grave for the enemies of the Roman State and a place for common thieves and poor men. She explained the layers of dirt surrounding a small cache of bones that had proved to be relocated – and then she pointed to a small hole that had been carved into the wall, a hole that reverently held what is now believed to be the remains of Jesus' friend, the fisherman Peter.

Deep below the floor of the Vatican, where thousands were using sophisticated flash cameras to record their visit, we all stood in the silence and half-light of a tomb. Above our heads, marble and gold and terrazzo graced the heavenly architecture that is now the Vatican. But down here, the earthen walls quietly stood in witness to one who had humbly requested to be crucified upside down.

Christianity, when it is at its best, cannot get away from her closeness to the simple, the earthy truths, the poor, the desperate. Later on, we can glorify our heroes and heroines. But first and last, our roots are in the graves of those who died clinging, in poverty, to the richness to eternal life.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Underneath Vatican City, Rome, Italy

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