Revd Dr Justin Lewis-Anthony draws particularly on the Old Testament lectionary reading, Isaiah 43.16-21, on this reflection for the approach of Passiontide.
Rome is the Caput Mundi, ‘head of the world’. Rome dates its foundation and its glory to 753 BC, and for much of the time since then it has dated its history ‘AUC’, Ab Urbe Condita, from the founding of the city. The Eternal City has a date; welcome to AUC 2772.
The age of Rome is a shock to someone who comes from a more recent culture, a less historic country. There are rocks by the side of the road in Rome which, if they were to be found in England, would justify their own museum exhibition. And the commonplace nature of old things (the ubiquity of antiquity?) applies to churches as well. As someone said to me when I arrived in here, ‘There are 900 churches in Rome: only 850 of them are significant.’
Which is why God’s promise to the people of Israel in Isaiah can be so shocking to hear in a place which prides itself on its age: ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ And worse: ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.’ How do we understand this, especially when we live in an old, venerable city?
There are two dangers when we think about things old and new: one is to cling to the old things because they are old. The other is to embrace the new things because they are new. This is what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’, to think that the mere passage of time has anything to say about the worth or value of any given object or idea. We think ‘I am so much better than my ancestors because I live later than them’, or we think ‘I am so much worse than my ancestors, because I live later than them.’ But time is not the measure of goodness, in God’s eyes.
Instead we should seek to understand the ways in which God has acted in the lives of our brother and sister Christians in the past, the ways in which He acts in the lives of our fellow human beings today, and to perceive the ways in which He will bring new, wonderful, things into being in the future. Everything must be tested, not by its age or its novelty, but by the way it expresses or denies the kingdom of God. As Paul says, he finds his fulfilment not in the history of his people, or the dignity of his lineage, but in the ‘surpassing value of knowing Christ.’ We find that knowledge in the lives and faces of our brothers and sisters, made in the image of God, and for whom Christ died, whether they lived yesterday, today, or tomorrow.
A sense of history is a valuable thing to set against the short-term and short-sighted view of most humans: we have been here before, in grief, confusion and joy. Those who follow us will experience the same mix of emotions and uncertainties long after we are forgotten. But, in the love of Christ Jesus, we find the hope of eternity.
In the meantime, I must try the ‘Caput Mundi Pizzeria’ I saw near Termini station. I wonder if its pizzas are fresh?
Justin Lewis-Anthony is the Deputy Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, having previously ministered in England, Canada and the United States.
The logo of the Anglican Centre: The dove on the tree in the centre, holding a piece of foliage is a sign of the Holy Spirit, as a bringer of good news, as was the dove which brought this sign of new beginnings to Noah. The dove is also a sign of the Kingdom of God of which Christ spoke, this kingdom being like a tree in whose branches many birds may come and roost. The mosaic style is typical of the northern Mediterranean in which Rome and Italy are set.
The cross is a sign to us of the triumph of God in Christ over the power of sin and death. The butterflies are a sign of the resurrection, the liberation and freedom that God’s new creation can mean for us and for all the world. The shell is a symbol of the common baptism of all members of the Body of Christ on earth.
The Anglican Centre in Rome is therefore a site of the good news of a new creation.