Saturday, August 8, 2009
On These Bones
I had always wondered about Catholics and their obsession with relics, little bits of saints bones in elaborate containers which they seemed to worship. It was rather startling then, or perhaps simply the comeuppance of a former Baptist, that one of the most powerful experiences in Rome was visiting the “Scavi,” the excavations under St. Peter’s Basilica that recently unearthed the original burial place of Peter.
Catholics have long claimed that Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it,” meant that the person of Peter was the foundation of the Church. Protestants of course have hastened to differ, asserting that it is Peter’s faith that Jesus was referring to. After seeing the excavations and hearing the story of how Peter was killed and where he was buried, it is clear that the distinction isn’t all that important.
As part of our pilgrimage in Rome we received a special tour of the excavations that are quite literally underneath the massive St. Peter’s Basilica. We descended several stories underneath the ground and heard how, beginning in the late 1930’s and continuing through the 1950’s Pope Pius XII started a program to excavate the earliest site of the tomb of St. Peter. According to tradition Peter was brought to Rome, imprisoned and finally crucified upside down at the Circus of Nero, the present site of St. Peter’s Square.
We walked through an ancient necropolis, a city of the dead, with marble sacrophogi that contained the remains of people from the first centuries of the Church, both pagan and Christian. We heard the stories of how the first Christians hurriedly buried the remains of Peter and carefully, unobtrusively marked the spot where he lay so that his remains could be venerated by believers and not destroyed by the officials of the Empire. By the time of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity the first of several churches were built over the place where Peter was buried. Over the centuries and the building of ever more ornate churches the site of the original tomb was lost. After the 20th century excavations, layers and layers beneath the current main altar of the Basilica, remnants of the bones of Peter were discovered and reinterred in a clear container so that a glimpse of Peter’s relics can be seen.
This man and his faith is the foundation of our Church. A man of deep contradictions Peter left everything to follow Christ and then denied him not once but three times. This is the man who impulsively began following Jesus walking across the water and then began to sink in his doubt. Peter seems to be absent from the cross and then doesn’t understand the meaning of the empty tomb And yet this same Peter is the one who preaches the Gospel to the world and finally so threatens the power of the Roman Empire that he is brought to Rome in shackles to be crucified in the heart of the Empire.
The story of Peter is a story of transformation and redemption. It is the story of an ordinary, impulsive and sometimes cowardly man who kept picking himself up and going forward in faith. His is the story of a very unlikely person chosen by God to do extraordinary things. The story of Peter is of a man who gave up his very life for God. Peter’s story is our story. On Peter, this rickety, unstable and unexpected foundation, the power of the greatest empire known to history stumbled and fell. On this foundation we stand, just as limited and human, cowardly and clueless as Peter, and like Peter we are building a new reality, a new form of power which is the Reign of God.