If there is one central theme that undergirds all aspects of the Benedictine Renewal Program, it is that of considering a text, a practice, a tradition within the context in which it arose. For The Rule of Saint Benedict, that means understanding the classical culture of Rome into which Christianity was born, and its ongoing effects through its influence on Christian scripture that. Studying in Rome, we have the chance to see what remains of that ancient Roman culture, and – at least in our imaginations – to experience it as people of the time did. Sister Kym Harris, OSB got us started on that path on 25 May.
The writers of the New Testament, she said, brought the reality of their everyday lives as subjects of the Roman Empire – whether citizens like St. Paul or conquered peoples like the Jewish disciples – into the images and language of their writing as
- positive elements (symbols and ideas)
- negative elements (symbols and ideas)
- transformed elements (experienced as negative but, in Christian perspective, turned around to become positive)
Some Romans are portrayed positively in the New Testament writings – the centurion at the crucifixion in Mark’s Gospel is the person whose heart is changed (when?) and proclaims that Jesus was the son of God. St. Paul, in his early letters, seems to have had an idealistic appreciation of Rome’s order and structure, of its system of laws, of the buildings and roads and aqueducts – so much so that he preferred to be tried by Roman law than Jewish law. Even in his later letters, imprisoned for years, he uses the symbolism of Roman power to express Christ’s power: rather than the mandated bending of the knee before the emperor, he says in his letter to the Philippians, Christians willingly, joyfully bend the knee to acknowledge the greatness of Christ.
The negative elements of ancient Rome – the impoverishment of peoples to build the Roman forum and all the building projects, the violence of war, the lust for blood and destruction are all present in the Book of Revelation – where they are brought to an end.
The most interesting passages are those where the negative is transformed. Where the Romans marched prisoners, now slaves, captured in battle under a triumphal arch whose carvings depict their wretched status, Jesus – in Matthew 25 – describes a separating of his followers in a procession to eternal life. And who will be in this procession? Those who visited the prisoner, cared for the widow and orphan, and tended the sick: those who were kind to the people Rome had oppressed.
Many other elements of Roman culture illuminate the language of the New Testament. Certain types of clothing were reserved to particular ranks, making Jesus’ admonition not to be concerned with clothing even more powerful. Luke uses the events of the Roman Empire to situate the coming of Jesus: the rule of particular emperors and consuls, and constantly raises questions about the interplay between Rome and Christianity.
The morning’s presentation certainly became more real as we spent the afternoon traveling to the Coliseum – probably more blood per square foot was shed inside that space than anywhere else on earth – and the other ruins of the ancient Roman forum.