I am traveling all day and may not have web access for a while. So be patient with moderation. Thanks.
Last Saturday, I had the opportunity to tour the Vatican Splendors collection at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society. The traveling exhibit contains selections from the Vatican’s collection of art and artifacts. Much of the exhibit concentrates on the papacy itself, with items associated with significant popes of the past and present. Other artifacts are more archaeological in nature, including items from the purported burial site of the apostle Peter.
The exhibit is excellent and I recommend it anyone interested in cultural and religious history. Do not be surprised that aspects of the exhibit are, as anyone would expect, presented in such a way as to support the various claims of the Roman Catholic church to antiquity and, therefore, authority. But aside from a few excesses of description- such as the apostles wearing mitres and Jesus elevating the cup to say “This is my blood”- the exhibit had little that any non-Roman Catholic Christian would disagree with on purely historical grounds.
Our tour was generously populated with older Roman Catholics who were clearly moved by much of what they were seeing, particularly the more impressive and lavish accouterments of the Pre-Vatican II Papacy. It was quite obvious to me, even from the little evidence that was present, that the post-Vatican II popes have more consciousness of how certain historical symbols and actions appear to the world. Such are the benefits of mass media.
But the exhibit provided this free-range Christian believer with several abiding images and accompanying thoughts.
Much of the exhibit concentrated on the historical evolution of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and especially on historical artifacts associated with the construction of the current basilica. As a significant piece of culture that connects up the traditional burial place of the apostle Peter with arguably the most magnificent church in all the world, it is a fascinating and revealing story, told well in the exhibit.
Certainly, there is much pride and reverence for Catholic Christians in what is to be seen in the greatest church in “Christendom.” For a “new covenant” believing Christian, there was considerable irony in much of what I saw. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles would have built such an edifice. While it’s artistic achievements are magnificent, this is a church built in the name of the one who said…
1 Peter 2: 5 you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in Scripture:
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
1 Peter 2:7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”*
1 Peter 2:8 and
“A stone of stumbling,
and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.
1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Jesus has definitively and permanently replaced the earthly, old covenant shaped temple, and the beauty of gold, silver and precious stones is now associated with the beauty of Jesus himself in the lives of those who are living stones in the house of God Jesus himself is building- the church, the ecclesia of God.
“Lord’ look what we have built to honor you. The work of our hands points the world to you.”
These unspoken sentiments bring me into mind the lessons and meaning of Jesus, and I remember his words to his apostles when a woman honored him with a lavish gift. He understands that love for God can bring forth these kinds of gifts, and it is important to see that love in what others have done with their ability to build and create. To not see the value that motivates the building of great churches and the creation of art and music is to be too narrow.
But elsewhere in the same exhibit were the reminders of what happens when spirituality becomes one dimensionally motivated to do things FOR Jesus and not live LIKE Jesus.
Throughout the exhibits were massive and priceless gold crosses and gold chalices, etc, for papal masses and ceremonies. Several Papal tiaras (three leveled crowns) were on display, reminding us that for a significant period of time, the papacy became deeply entangled in the power of empire, taking the name of Jesus and using it to establish temporal authority. All these sorts of “splendors” speak deeply to the historical and ongoing difficulty for all Christians to admit we are frequently far away from Jesus, making our own way and simply unwilling to humble ourselves and admit our errors.
So it was good to read of Pope Paul VI purposefully taking the tiara from his “coronation” and selling it to give the proceeds to the poor. I could not help but think of St. Francis and his mad apprehension of Jesus shaped spirituality. He would have said it was a good beginning that we all should emulate.
Today, many evangelicals are parading their wealth and preaching a prosperity Gospel that Rome itself would find obnoxious. Multi-million dollar worship centers have brought the spirituality of the mall into the church and blessed the consumeristic, technologically addicted masses that church shop in North America. There is no museum exhibit that could tastefully catalog the history of the Protestant demise from the catholic reformation hopes of Luther to the embarrassing apostasy of the contemporary evangelical media pantheon. Any evangelical that feels superior because we aren’t selling indulgences needs to do a bit of research into what we are selling and what we do announce must be financially supported.
It seems rather silly for any of us to point at another Christian tradition and accuse them of missing the point anymore because we’ve all become clowns in the circus. We can only all look at ourselves and realize that our footprints, sometimes in the past and sometimes in the present, have wandered away from from the Christ we associate ourselves with.
The most abiding image of the exhibit was, without doubt, the simplest. It was a small piece of red plaster, taken from the ancient gravesite of the apostle Peter, far beneath the present basilica. On that small piece of plaster were scratched almost imperceptibly two words “Peteros eni.”
“Peter is here.”
Vatican archaeologists may have claimed more for the tomb and bones that were found at this site than can strictly be affirmed, but I think the evidence of Peter’s burial here is considerable. (The entire book describing the excavation is online.)
If it is Peter’s gravesite and if the story of his martyrdom is true, then we have a reminder that at the core of all this history, all this excess and all this wandering from a Jesus shaped use of our gifts and abilities, there remains something real and true.
There remains a rough and loud fisherman who heard the voice of Jesus. A man compelled to leave his nets. An unschooled, emotional, broken man who took to the road behind the Messiah. There remains his foibles, his sincerity, his daring and stubbornness, and of course, Jesus’ continual love for him.
At the root of all that history is one fisherman from Galilee who found himself chosen to go across the world and bear a bloody, cross-shaped witness in the midst of the Roman circus; Jesus shaped in the one way Jesus predicted was ultimately true for all his true disciples.
“When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
That is the shape of following Jesus. That is the gift. That is the offering. That is, according to Jesus, the living stone that gives forth the praise he truly desires to hear.
In Revelation 6, the martyrs are under the true altar. Not on Vatican Hill, or st. Peter’s, but in heaven. They are praying:
“O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants* and their brothers* should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
Rather than continue the Protestant-Catholic-Evangelical accusation and derision debate, why don’t we all pursue another way; a way that may not bring us any notice by the world at all, but a way that is surely the right way.
It is the way that led to those two words on that red piece of plaster.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? 37 For what can a man give in return for his life?