Monday, July 31, 2017

Reflections from Rome, the "Eternal" City

Rome—the eternal city.  And after a few short hours spent here, one can see why.  Traversing urban blocks, the traveler views ancient ruins which, like piles of hidden treasure, remind passersby of the ephemeral nature of life.  Gargantuan columns toppled in heaps or fused together by bands of metal shout out to today’s world to remember the past.  Consider history.  And live for something beyond the here and now.

Millennia-old fragments scatter memories everywhere in this city, where the ancient past daily intermixes with the ever-passing present. 

A pigeon holds its perch atop a marble Caesar.  Perhaps it descended from the very birds who, hundreds of generations past, participated in Roman army fortifications, where pigeons were raised and used by the imperial army.

Trajan's Column by Night
I sit in the light of the grand column chronicling Trajan’s victories of war, beholding a sight first seen in a history book years ago.  I’m really here—really in Rome.  One of millions throughout the centuries who has visited this “eternal” city.

Here, in the light of the grand etch work of a brilliant military historian, I note an emperor’s accomplishments displayed in stone.  This ancient volume speaks even more loudly than the Egyptian obelisk by Constantine’s baptismal site.  That testifies of Egyptian presence, of antiquity’s great borrowing and melding of cultures.  But this reaches every language group, for its historian uses pictures to portray one emperor’s conquests in exquisite detail, pointing out his grand accomplishments not only to literate but also to uneducated and barbarian alike.

I marvel at the chronicles recorded in stone throughout the city, at the immense proportions of the giant Forum, dwarfing the mass of humanity, which once crowded under its dominance and even now gaze upwards, imagining that incredible splendor of ages past.

Not far away sits the Mamertine Prison, where the Apostle Paul penned two epistles to Timothy and one to Titus.  Surrounded by concrete, without proper waste facilities, Paul would have depended upon the charitable gifts of others to sustain his life.  Descending into the heart of the Mamertine, I consider the precise geographical context of these books and decide to read through them during my first days in Rome.

Before being bound in this prison, Paul would have beheld the powerful Roman dominance that Caesar Augustus’s massive forum offered.  Bleating sheep and lowing cattle—destined for sacrifice, whose own entrails would have been read to predict omens –-no doubt reminded him of the pagan city where he had come to appeal to Caesar but now awaited death.  His heart, filled with compassion for the mass of humanity surrounding him, would have considered the populace who worshiped at Jupiter’s, Minerva’s, and Apollo’s temples, as the prison hovered in the shadows of these idolatrous centers.

And in this context Paul wrote words that bear noteworthy significance:  “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

While emperors constructed larger-than-life statues of themselves, this great Ruler remains invisible.  Unlike the emperors’ faded palaces and images, the I AM is eternal.  Other emperors’ grand dwellings—at first, luxurious and soon, fading away—would grace the hillside overlooking the Mamertine for years to come, but this King remains immortal—the same in 2017 as he was in Paul’s day, just decades after Christ’s resurrection.

As I walk back to my hotel room after viewing the old city at night, with the orange flame lit at Piazza Venezia, the Forum illuminated, and Trajan’s Column glowing, I consider.  While the “eternal city” boasts faded columns of marble and stone, I have a “building of God, an house eternal in the heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1)—I have heavenly body promised me that will last forever.  While the millennia-old marble makes for interesting history, it is far from eternal.

In fact, in a city where travelers marvel at antiquity while beholding the intricate detail of colossal beauty, few realize that God—the invisible one—outshines any monument of the past.  And they, unlike the ephemeral statues about them, have been fashioned in the image of this immortal Being.  Created in His likeness, their eternal souls are by far the most important features of this city. 

Unlike the broken columns at our feet, the glory of our God lasts not from one earthly kingdom to the next or from one ruler to another.  His is an everlasting glory. 

“Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”   

A focus on His reality--the eternal—can bring everlasting reward.   
And if we remain focused on such a perspective, we may forever joy that our present was spent reflecting the immortal, invisible, and only wise God, who alone lasts forever!

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