Fracctico Panis, Catacombs of Priscilla
Below freezing outside, the ground blanketed with new fallen snow, they come in from out of the cold, wet galoshes and heavy down coats dropped by the door. It is Friday morning, mid-winter in Indiana and they bring butter cake, cranberry muffins and clementines; the flames dance in the fireplace, the coffee pot hisses fragrant hot steam and we come together and thaw.
My home, visited by wisdom personified: women, leaders, ministers, seekers, sisters, daughters, mothers, mentors. We sip our coffee and share our lives. There are new babies to brag on, photos of the living dolls to pass around and fawn over, there are stories to tell, ground covered on the journey from last time until this. There are miracles to claim, praise to be given for those angels keeping watch, there are burdens to share, there is pain to confess. We laugh and eat and testify and my mind drifts to a place like this before us.
Far below the centuries of civilizations long come and gone on the Aventine Hill in Rome there lies a chamber beneath the rubble, inside the ancient Catacombs of Priscilla. Beautiful reliefs are painted on the wall throughout, images of women, pillars of the early church, Mary the Virgin, Theodora, Thecla and the Magdalene, their stories of surrender and grace all but lost to us now. Except for this funerary chamber, this cavern in the ground, this shrine for women valiant in the faith, this safe space where it seems they gathered for centuries to worship in Jesus’ name.
It is no secret to any student of Scripture that there was a time in the early days of the community of the baptized when women taught and encouraged, led and gathered the believers into their homes, those safe abodes and first sanctuaries of early Jesus followers. Even in the turmoil of the first centuries, in the midst of the struggle for identity and the battle to sustain what the Spirit had birthed, we find these sacred places hewn in the stones of the earth where holy women gathered to share the Lord’s meal to kneel and pray.
After the sanctuaries of the home had been abandoned, given way to cathedrals, long after women had been silenced in the church, still they gathered and we know some came here, to Priscilla’s Catacombs to this chamber because they believed it to be the resting place of St. Prisca, early church leader and ministry partner of Paul. An ancient fresco is stained into the stone commemorating seven women gathered together to share the Feast of the Lord.
I sample the butter cake and I think about them and us, all women, all called, all struggling to stand and sustain what the Spirit has birthed. I think about how much we all need each other, how grateful I am to have been visited today by my wise companions, those gathered now and those who gathered before us. I raise my hands and I give thanks for women wise and sacred space.
I scramble to find the Christmas lights in the garage that is still cluttered with boxes from our move, tripping over first one thing and stubbing my toe on another; I swear under my breath as the Silent Night plays in the other room.
For weeks I’ve been trying to beautify my home, to hang ornaments and Douglas fir swag’s, to fill the air with cinnamon and clove hoping the loveliness will cover the hurt and fear of this season.
As I make my usual preparations, I am acutely aware there are faces missing from the scene this year, loved ones who once filled the halls with laughter and warmth whose absence leaves us with an empty longing ache. There are relationships that are shattered and broken pieces of us lying on the floor, there are dreams that did not come true staring back at us from the holly covered kissing ball.
My cat, still unsettled in the new home has peed on my tree skirt twice so that I am afraid to wrap my gifts and seal them with bows for fear my loved ones will find more than what they hoped for in the box gilded with love.
‘Perfection is a myth’ I chant as I remember the words of my therapist from ions ago. I drive to Starbucks in the drizzling rain of early December that should be fluffy white snowflakes the size of my hand and I think of her as I so often do this time of year.
If anyone had expectations of how things ‘should be,’ if ever a woman dreamed of how the miracle of Christmas might come to pass it was Mary. Had she and Joseph argued about the ill timed trip to Bethlehem, had she complained and asked him to walk faster so they might make it into the city in time to find a room? Was she driven to tears and exhaustion by the sorry excuse for lodging that was afforded them, was she angry when the uninvited guests arrived unannounced?
If any of this is true, we have no record of it; we only know these imperfect memories, this ramshackle scene, this inelegant birth was precious to her so that she thought about it often and treasured that night in her heart (Lk. 2.19).
It strikes me that her response is so different than mine. Faced with fear and uncertainty, I respond with a fierce furious need to control, dragging everyone with me, kicking and screaming doing what I can to force what ‘should be.’ Mary found the grace and sweet blessing of accepting what is.
I don’t know what things look like around your table this year, not sure if your traditions will endure or if life or hardships, natural disasters or economic woes threaten your long held ways. It is possible that your turkey will be dry and your relative will step out of line but remember this; the miracle of Christ often finds its way into the worst possible situations. The hope of Christmas is more than some preconceived notion or Norman Rockwell image, it is born in love, hewn in the rock of surrender, known in the acceptance of what is here and now.
May the peace of Mary and the wonder of her Son dwell with you this season and may you know the joy of living right where you are.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ Luke 1. 39-45 (NRSV)
I have never liked hospitals. The way they smell like cleaning products and watered down gruel. I have never liked the way shoes squeak on the linoleum tile or that the hallways are cluttered with space age machines and gurneys and bed pans. Never mind the fact that the inhabitants of the hospital are sick folks, which makes the whole experience like descending into a universe of perpetual germs.
As much as I dislike hospitals, you would think I would have avoided them. However, they have inevitably been a part of my life. Not that I have ever been a patient myself, thankfully, up to this point, I have been blessed with good health and have therefore only been there to visit and bring spiritual care to others.
For my familiarity of hospitals, and for many other things, I blame my mother. A woman who was ever eager to visit hospitals and nursing homes and places where mentally handicapped kids lived, my mother spent most of her life loving old people or sick kids or needy friends.