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.
Let’s be clear, I am a Jesus lover, a professor of biblical studies and a serious academic but I like a mindless reality television series as much as the next girl—maybe more. After a long day of text criticism I enjoy coming home to watch fashion and friendship on parade. However, fond as I am of the shoes and bags and hair extensions, I am always troubled to the core by the catfights and the conflicts and the blatant disconnect between the lives of these Bravo housewives and women everywhere.
Regularly, I find myself wanting to write my own series about the women with whom I share my life. I want the world, or at least the Bravo viewing audience, to know that we are women who are of one Spirit, one baptism and one Lord. I want the world to know that we share love and grace and tragedy and laughter—that we shop, mourn, celebrate new life and hold hands through the good and bad and raw of this life. We are real women in Indiana coping with loss and battling our weight, women who are desperate to become mothers and women who are trying to keep home and family and career a float. Right here where I live we lunch and meet for coffee, we hit the occasional White House Black Market sale, we Zumba and we take meals to a local strip club after Bible Study on Wednesday nights.
Shrine of Mary Magdalene, Vezelay, France
_ You can see it in the face of a survivor, the twinkle in her eye that tells you: I have seen the worst, I have fought the devil, I have walked through the fire and I’m still here. Something about the pink feather boa wrapped ‘round her graceful neck, the colorful ribbons born proudly on her chest, the song of hope in a cemetery that makes you want to tip your hat, bow your head or courtesy in her presence. There is something magical and inspirational in her smile that entices us all to believe, we shall overcome. And there is nothing that can rival the power of the heart that bleeds this refrain in all the world.