In Rome, history is commonplace. Just walking down the street, you're likely to stumble upon an old monument or artifact; often enough, the monument itself is barely kept in any kind of repair. The ancient Circus Maximus (think Ben-Hur) is marked only by an extensive gravel circle, tucked a way between the Metro station and a busy street.
A monument to Marcus Aurelius sits on the square in front of the current government office, just standing there with no name plate or any historical marker. And these sites are the norm: few historical markers are privileged (the Colosseum is excepted); they are instead treated as a way of life.
The effect of such treatment is a leveling of sorts, an equalizing. Marcus Aurelius, remembered by a column with armies marching up it, is briefly forgotten as the great statesman and author (and even as the subject of a Hollywood film); he is simply another man, part of the Roman scenery and no more important than any other part of the Roman scenery. Walk through Julius Caesar's house, and he becomes a man like any other - one who was hot in the summer and cold in the winter, one who invented the idea of a 'rec room':
Even the Colosseum contributes to such leveling: Walking through its cavernous halls, I realized that it was simply the sports arena of the ancient world. Archeologists today do not even find evidence to indicate martyrdom in the actual Colosseum, making the structure - as vast and beautiful as it is - simply the Roman version of today's Fenway Park.
Perhaps Paul too felt this whisper of equality in ancient Rome, and then found it realized in Christ: In Galatians he reminds readers that "[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (3:28). A visit to Rome reminds us that even the great emperors, once exalted like gods, were people like ourselves who worked and played sports. Paul turns the tapestry and reminds us of the other side of this same democratic truth: that even the lowliest slave has a soul, that in Christ they too can find spiritual blessing.
As you might expect, monuments are everywhere in Rome: the city teems with buildings and statues and columns and fountains erected by the ancient Romans, by the Catholic Popes, by the Renaissance artists, and even by modern-day craftsman. All of these structures are in various states of repair. The Forum has crumbled, leaving red brick walls that testify to a once-bustling marketplace and white marble columns to
mark the temple of Vestus filled with the ritual virgins (Perhaps someday I will write about the treatment of virginity throughout history, which is itself an interesting phenomenon.)
My traveling partner Danae pointed out these broken buildings as evidence of the ultimate frailty of human effort, "all the works which [human] hands had done . . . was vanity and grasping for the wind" (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
Very true, that observation, but so many of the works were still standing intact and imposing. The Colosseum has suffered some damage; its innerds are worn down and nearly gone in many places. But from the outside, it still stands four stories high, each arch and each column still intact. More imposing still is the Pantheon, with the Latin inscription across its entrance and the heavy columns.
In the ceiling of the Pantheon is a hole, one that baffles modern architects: According to the guidebook, the Pantheon should not still be standing with that hole in its center, but it is still there, nearly two thousand years after it was built. In the movie Gladiator, the central character cries, 'What we do in life echoes in eternity!" - and certainly what the ancient Romans did still resonates today.
As believers, this is especially true for us. Where the Roman monuments endure for a thousand years, our own actions truly do 'echo in eternity'. Hebrews, likely enough written by an author familiar with all these enduring Roman monuments, encourages believers to an attitude that looks forward to eternity: just as Christ "endured the cross" specifically "[f]or the joy set before Him", so we believers are to live for the 'joy set before us' - for the heavenly reward, for those pleasures which will endure forever. Certainly the Roman monuments are ancient; they have endured for two thousand years and more, and (unless the world ends) will endure for
another two thousand years. What we believers do in this life, though, will echo in an eternity with God.
Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of traveling is learning - simply observing the world around me, the creation of people who lived long before (whether artistic or architectural), and drawing conclusions about my own life and about my God. And although I cannot always live in Rome, or even in Prague, it is a pleasure that I want to cultivate: the sort of intense observation that helps me (and those around me) to learn and grow, every day, wherever I am. And it is a pleasure that I hope you too, whether you are reading from Spain or from Canada or from Kansas, can develop.
What we do in life echoes in eternity.