The city has a distinct aroma, as all ancient places do. The pungent air is laced with dirt and grime, stories and sin, life and death and spice. Amidst the hustle and bustle of a thoroughly post modern city, the thrum of antiquity lurks on every corner like so many Easter eggs waiting to be uncovered.
Our journey began at the Titular Church of Saint Prisca on the Aventine. Though there is some trouble sorting out, to which Prisca/Priscilla this church is named for, it is clear that this is a place of early Christian worship and Mithraic holy site. It should be noted here that the name Prisca is the proper name, Priscilla is the diminutive, much like Kimberly and Kim. See what I did there :)
The church is adorned with magnificent art work some posted above, such as the painting over the altar depicting the baptism of Prisca by Peter. Other reliefs tell the story of martyrdom or the defiance of as she is seen awaiting execution in prison. The baptismal font is said to have been used by Peter himself, though this seems unlikely since the apostle most likely would have practiced immersion like most Church of God folk.
Speculation about which Prisca ranges from the biblical Prisca, mentioned 6 times in the New Testament, including 4 times prior to the naming of her husband Aquila. This is the couple who fled Rome under the exile of Jews issued by Emperor Claudius in 48-49 CE. According to the New Testament, the two flee to Corinth and it is there they encounter Paul and the Gospel of Christ. Thereafter they become co-laborers in the proclamation of the Gospel with Paul and a part of his inner most circle. They travel to Ephesus to help plant the church in the region prior to Paul's arrival and later he sends them ahead of himself to Rome.
Other traditions hold that the St. Prisca the church is named for was the young daughter of the biblical couple who was martyred under Claudius, making her the earliest official martyr of record. Still other traditions claim this Prisca was a woman of means perhaps a relative or named for the the biblical Prisca and her prominence in the early church.
While the Mithraeum underneath is mostly intact and offers still visible inscriptions, it has been hard to find archaeological evidences of an earlier house church. However, owed to tradition, it was on this spot, Callistus inscription near the altar explains the site was dedicated first to Hercules then to Christ as a place where Peter baptized many in Jesus' name. The stories hold more weight since the Aventine was the busy home to Roman tradesmen, merchants, laborers and those visiting the city looking for work, it was the blue collar hill in town. This then seems likely place for Prisca and Aquila to have gathered together with believers, awaiting Paul's visit riding out the terror of Nero and worshiping with Peter before his own death.
We are in the middle of the fiercest hurricane season of memory the United States. Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston and surrounding cities just last week and now Irma is reeking havoc in the Caribbean while all of Florida has been advised to evacuate before the near category 5 storm makes landfall. The winds and rains and waves are said to be the size of Texas, and we keep watch as the 24 hour news cycle reports sights of horrific devastation and loss of life.
Our hearts leap as we see children lifted to safety in baskets swinging from helicopters, heroes floating down streams where parks used to be to rescue a single mom and her baby from a rooftop. As it is in every one of these so called natural disasters there is loss of life, loss of property, economic ruin and most often those hardest hit are the elderly, the poor and the infirm.
We pray, we check in on our friends on facebook, we to send money to the trusted organizations on the ground providing aid and-- inside, secretly, down deep we ask, we question, we wonder-- How could a God who loves us cause or allow, (depending upon your theology) such a horrific scenario to befall humanity.
For those who believe God caused this storm and every other thing, it is sometimes easy then to view the catastrophe as punishment. There is, of course, biblical precedent for that interpretation. There is the one prehistoric story where the flood wiped out humanity leaving only one faithful drunk and his family (Gen 8-9). Only now it seems that when folks apply this hermeneutic, they do so to find the punishment is a response to the actions or omissions of people groups they don’t particularly like and the sins that are the not transgressions of their own account. In the Genesis flood story the entire human family was held accountable for the sins of the people.
Others are more comfortable with a notion of a God who stands idly by while the wreckage is allowed, a God who grants the adversary dominion to lay waste and destroy in some battle of supernatural forces. And there’s an a-historical narrative like this one too found in the Old Testament. The problem here is this interpretation is inherently Greek in influence and can leave us feeling like pawns in some cruel cosmic game and we have to wonder, is this the point of the story anyway, or is the story here the means of conveying a deeper truth?
Still others will search for formulae within the Scripture, work to add and subtract the numbers found in apocalyptic literature to determine the end is for sure near. Some even now, convinced that the stars have aligned and the disasters foretell the fulfillment of Revelation 12.5 await the end of the world on the 23rd day of September this year.
And some of us open wide our hands, loose our grip on what we thought we knew and admit our utter helplessness in the hour. We know it isn’t the end of the world, it’s just the end of life as we know it. Everything is different after the storm.
We remember. We realize we’ve been here before. We know well what it is to have no control over the outcome, the diagnosis, the death, the tornadic debris of a broken relationship or dream. We will hunker down, brace ourselves for another assault but know instinctively the storms come and will do what they will. We refuse to believe that those who are struck with tragedy are any less beloved than those who will walk away unscathed.
We look around wild eyed for the helpers and the survivors, those who’ve waded through the waters and did not drown. We let go of the questions of Why and instead allow the honesty of our doubt to bond us to others facing the torrent. We welcome those with nowhere to go, we take in those who have nowhere to turn, we feed the hungry, we hold the broken. We board our windows and shop for rations and kneel down in the safest place we can find—at the feet of the Father of Rain, the one who knows where the lightning bolts are kept. We lie down and sleep, not because we are safe but because we are loved and we are not alone. And though we are frightened and shaken and beyond preservation we have an unassailable peace that the one who told the sea where to begin and end is with us and for us whilst the storm rages on (Job 38).