The (Not Really) Eternal City
I woke up on the first day of 2017 in Rome, the “Eternal City,” feeling the weight of a world where even the most enduring things are laughably far from “eternal.”
I was in Rome on a trip with Kira and six young adults from our church. It was a trip we designed around early church history. For six days we led our group to the many sacred Christian sites of Rome: the prison where Peter and Paul were held captive; the churches where Peter and Paul are buried; the early Christian catacombs; the Vatican; churches from the 4th century; churches on top of older churches on top pagan temples.
I had our group read two books in preparation for our time in Rome: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church and Defending Constantine. In restaurants over gnocchi and pasta all’Amatriciana, we had discussions about the merits of pre- and post-Constantinian Christianity. Is power and government favor a good thing for the Christian church, or is it better off as a marginalized, outsider, minority community?
As we walked around the Roman Forum and the Colosseum, marveling at what remains from the once-dominant empire, the perishability of all things was an ever-present thought. At Pompeii we saw a city literally frozen in time, thriving one minute and buried under ash the next. How temporal are things, civilizations, kingdoms! We wondered if tourists in the year 4,017 would look at the remains of our cities and think the same thing. We thought about history, and the parts that are remembered and the people whose once-great names are now forgotten.
What of the history we are living now will be remembered? That’s a question that seems especially appropriate at the start of 2017, a year that felt ominously “historic” even before it began.
Donald Trump is the new American president.
Words I never expected to write. I have little to add by way of commentary, at least on the rise and reality of Trump. Except that I will pray for him and hope for America’s sake (and the world’s) that he exceeds all expectations. John Piper’s seven points on Christian faithfulness in the Trump era sum up my own perspective pretty well.
My main thought on President Trump is that he is just one man. Just four (or eight) years in the White House. America is just one nation. Her tenure as a dominant power may or may not last as long as the Roman Empire did (507 years). One day America will be a few fragments of pillars and ancient remains too. These are temporal things. The church, however, is eternal. The “Eternal City” is not Rome, but the City of God.
After our time in Rome, the eight of us spent a few days in England. We visited some Christian brothers and sisters in London, then in Newcastle. I preached at a church we’ve partnered with. One day our British Christian friends took us to a place called “Holy Island.” On an uncharacteristically warm January day we strolled the mossy green hills of this island, among ruins of a 7th century monastery. A group of a dozen or so 21st century believers, we walked among tombstones with celtic crosses and thought of the generations of Christians who strolled this same ground, gazing at the same North Sea. We thought about the monks who were here one day, creating beautiful illuminated manuscripts, and then driven away by Viking invaders the next.
A few days later, when we flew from Europe back to California, it was one of those flights that takes place at perpetual sunset. Chasing the sun west, the “golden hour” of oranges and purples was our window view for about nine hours straight. Enjoying this longer-than-usual sunset (and trying not to fall asleep), I reflected on the setting sun as the metaphor of metaphors for human existence. The passing away of things. Ephemerality. Magical moments that are instantly memories, and then forgotten forever. In the moment I had the thought that Richard Linklater should make a fourth film in his “Before” series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy sit together on a flight from Europe to America, chasing the sunset for nine hours. Perhaps Before Landing. I would watch that.
We returned home to more signs of decay. A loved one with cancer. Close friends who lost a baby. We reentered the news cycle and its predictable rhythms of terrorism, natural disasters, partisan ranting, celebrity deaths, gloom and doom. And yet for every sunset there is also a sunrise.
We went to church on Sunday and it felt like home. We hugged the saints who will be our forever family. We cried and laughed together with them that Sunday night. On Monday we celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. On Tuesday we went to work. On Wednesday our church’s South African pastor became a U.S. citizen.
On Thursday evening as the sun set on the Obama years in America, I listened to Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and I wrote this post. Now the weekend is here, and with it a new temporal regime. And on Sunday we’ll be at church again.