Friday, April 11, 2014

St. Peter and the Obelisk

Christus Vincit. “Christ wins.” This is the amazing, ecstatic, sometimes almost unbelievable truth of Easter.

It’s also the truth captured in this photo from a recent pilgrimage I helped lead to Rome. It was taken in St. Peter’s Square and it shows the statue of St. Peter from behind, looking toward the towering obelisk that marks the center of the square about 100 yards away.

It turns out Peter would have good reason to be gazing at that obelisk, and with a sense of irony. He’d seen it before, on the day of his martyrdom.

You see, the obelisk had been plucked from Egypt by the Roman Emperor Caligula in 37 AD, a trophy of Roman power. He had placed it in the center of his “circus,” or arena. It was in this very circus that the Emperor Nero, beginning in 64 AD, would make a public sport of torturing and killing Christians, scapegoating them for a fire that had devastated Rome.

One of those martyred was St. Peter, who according to tradition was crucified upside down, deeming himself unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Savior. One can imagine the scorn and satisfaction Nero felt as he killed the leader of what to him must have seemed a pathetic little band of nobodies. Surely these Christians would disappear from the face of the earth like so many cults before them.

Fast-forward nearly two thousand years.
St. Peter’s Basilica at sunset
St. Peter’s from behind the main altar
Nero? Gone. The Roman Empire? Gone. Nero’s Circus? Gone, with a portion of St. Peter’s Basilica built right on top of it. The obelisk? Moved to the center of St. Peter’s Square by Pope Sixtus V in 1586 and surmounted by a cross.

Christus Vincit. This was the theme that ran like an electric current through our pilgrimage to Rome. In church after church we saw intricate mosaic floors fashioned from Roman tiles removed from sites like the Coliseum. We saw massive columns transplanted from once-proud Roman structures that now lay in ruins. The most stunning example was a pillar taken from the enormous pagan temple built by the Emperor Maxentius in the early 4th century.
Pillar with statue of Mary

Where did that pillar end up? If you visit the Basilica of St. Mary Major in the heart of Rome you will see it, outside in the square, holding aloft a statue of the Blessed Mother.

I could go on and on.

But can we afford such triumphant optimism? The times we live in don’t seem very favorable to Christian faith – and that’s an understatement! But picture Nero’s Circus in 64 AD, the site of a Christian bloodbath and the martyrdom of our first Pope. Could there have been a more hopeless predicament? And yet the only thing left of that Circus is the obelisk that stands tall in St. Peter’s Square, marked by the Cross of Christ and the gaze of Peter.

Christus Vincit.