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.
It’s Monday morning, the brisk night of early fall has broken into a frost covered morning and the grass crunches under my feet. Pumpkin spice lattes have returned though I’m on yet on another carb cleanse; summer has faded and harvest time is upon us and I am full awake to life lived in seasons. The earth, we’re told, spins on its axis, we watch the leaves bleed with gold and know time passes, people grow and we are ever so slightly altered by the unbroken turning of all. How is it then that we hold on when nothing stays the same? Too many conversations with loved ones of late, who say, “I never thought I’d find myself here,” reminds me that life continues to move, those things we thought were fixed can shift and the sandcastles we built only days before are washed away in the even’ tide.
Creation is fashioned around this balance of change, these shifts and turns, some bumpy, some silky smooth, as if the Creator knew our frailty, our need to reap and sow, to work and rest, to dance and to mourn. The sweet blessing of life then is to share this perfect madness with someone else; to hold hands and sing around the fires while they blaze, to offer a soft shoulder and sit together when the embers turn to ash.
She was there, standing with him through it all. Prisca and Aquilla, though she is always named first save two instances, were the faithful companions of Paul. Evicted from Rome by Claudius’ edict, they found their way to Corinth and in the Las Vegas of their day, Prisca and Aquilla had rolled the dice of fortune, hoping that in this place they could sell their leather tents and sandals, awnings and saddles to win back all they had lost. And then, one day-- they met him—the fire breathing, love singing, Jesus preaching, Hebrew ex-Pharisee called Paul.
Kindred spirits from the start, they were cut from the same cloth or the perfect compliments to the other at least because the witness of scripture is their lives were intricately woven together for the rest of their days. Prisca and Aquilla taught Paul to work with his hands, to sew leather and make goods, he taught them of Jesus, of miracles and ministry.
This life, following Jesus, serving alongside Paul would mean many other moves, a lifetime of change, seasons of good times and hard, uncertainty and persecution. From Corinth to Ephesus and back to Rome, Prisca and Aquilla would traverse the Empire steadfast in their mission. Pastors and church planters and seminary professors who counseled other leaders (Acts 18,21), Paul and the whole Gentile church calls them blessed. Paul says they, “risked their necks” for the Gospel sake (Rom. 16.3).
In the life of Prisca I find great inspiration to weather these ever changing days. She was a force to be reckoned with in the early church, rumored to have been the possible author of Hebrews and an unquestionable pastor and leader in the midst of the turbulence of the first century she remains constant, unshaken; for her friend and for the Gospel she risked.
For isn’t this the Gospel at its heart, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for a friend” (John 15.13). So sip your pumpkin latte, walk outside and take in the breathtaking sight of a goldenrod moon, hold the hand of someone who loves you and know heaven’s gift is you are not walking alone.