28 April 2012

The Roman Coliseum: a Microcosm of the World (3rd Sun. after Easter 2012)

Amen, amen, I say to you, that you shall lament and weep, but the world shall rejoice;
and you shall be made sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.

Third Sunday after Easter
29 April 2012

When we hear these words of our Lord, spoken to His disciples at the Last Supper, we understand their primary meaning. We understand that the Passion and Death of Christ will lead His disciples to lament and weep, and that His Resurrection will turn their sorrow into joy. We understand that the “world” — that is, those who wanted to see Christ suffer and die — rejoiced when they saw their wish fulfilled. And yet, Christ died to reconcile the world to Himself; to bring about the conversion of the world; to provide the Way for people to escape the degradation and darkness of sin and restore to them their original dignity. Perhaps this is why Our Lord does not say that the joy of the world will turn into lamentation and sorrow.

St. John likens the Jews who sought the death to the “world”. That’s because these Jews, in rejecting Christ and seeing to the death of the Son of God, represented at that moment the entire world. After all, the entire human race was estranged from God because everyone incurs the guilt of Adam’s sin and thus is born outside of the state of grace.

Now, the Roman Empire, the world into which Christ was born, the world in which the early Christians lived, was at that time wallowing in depravity. Shortly before the birth of Christ the Roman historian Livy, in the preface to his massive history of Rome, advised his reader with these words:

"I would …have him trace the process of our moral decline, to watch first the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the final collapse of the whole edifice, and the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them."

During the first 250 years of Christianity the mores of Roman society became particularly depraved. Here are some of the main reasons why. First, the widespread unemployment of the plebian class. This unemployment was caused by the introduction of cheap slave labor.

 The plebs, then, became dependent on hand-outs from the State. In a short time, thousands of Romans chose simply to live on subsidies. They sacrificed a higher standard of living in order to live an easy, boring, and idle life. Well, as we see ourselves in our own society, when a large segment of the population is idle and bored, they become restless. And if not addressed, this restlessness leads to civil unrest. What, then, did the Roman authorities do to mitigate and minimize civil unrest, as well as bolster their own popularity? Why, they provided the masses, together with every other segment of society, with truly spectacular entertainment. In Rome, the most famous entertainment center was the Flavian Amphitheatre, more commonly known today as the Roman Coliseum.

Constructed over the course of a decade, the Coliseum was a perfect microcosm of the Roman Empire. Covered in Travertine marble, it was a truly grand edifice.  And if today, in its dilapidated condition, the Coliseum can still manage to evoke a sense of grandeur, stability, order, and power in those who behold it, how much more would the awestruck onlooker have felt these things when he saw it in all its glory!

 Likewise, until around A.D. 180, the Roman Empire would have given to every onlooker the appearance of grandeur, stability, order, and power — what Edward Gibbons called the Pax Romana.
 During this time, the empire boasted a unified legal system; the Roman legions methodically and successfully patrolled the Empire’s borders, and the internal empire was free from major invasion, piracy, or social disorder on any grand scale.

But behind this fa├žade of stability and peace lay an abyss of bloodlust and debauchery, pain and degradation — all of which was on full display within the walls of the Coliseum for almost 400 years. In A.D. 80, when this magnificent product of Roman engineering was first opened to the public, the opening ceremony is said to have lasted 100 days, during which at least 5000, and as many as 11000 wild animals were killed. Over the years, tens of thousands of gladiators were killed — all in the name of entertainment.

 And in between the animal and gladiatorial bloodshed, there would be other shows run by, among others, local brothels. These were the Coliseum’s equivalent of a modern television commercial — only leaving nothing to the imagination. According to one author, the owners of said brothels would often urge the lights around the Coliseum’s arena to be dimmed. Then, with the aid of visual special effects like smoke and mist, the prostitutes’ “skills” would be showcased for all to enjoy.

Many of the spectacles in the Coliseum also had a religious component to them. The religions of Rome, however, did not provide meaning to human existence. At best, they offered a utilitarian system of quid pro quo. Gods were capricious entities that needed to be appeased. If you wanted something from them, you had to perform the correct rite, offer the correct sacrifice. At worst, they reflected and sanctioned the violence and debauchery that permeated the everyday lives of millions. And thus, it should come as no surprise to anyone, that in a society where the value of life was cheap, the purpose of life unknown, and the gods largely indifferent to human affairs, a sense of hopelessness and despair pervaded society.

What made everything so much worse was that people didn’t hate being part of so much depravity. On the contrary, they could not get enough of it. Watching, and even causing the sufferings of others gave them a sadistic pleasure and joy. And that pleasure was addicting. St. Augustine tells the story of how his friend Alypius, while in Rome, had become “carried away” by the gladiatorial shows:

"For although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquaintances and fellow-students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence they drew him, vehemently refusing and resisting, into the Amphitheatre, during these cruel and deadly shows. He protested to them 'Though you drag my body to that place, and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. I shall then be absent while present, and so shall overcome both you and them.' When they heard this, they dragged him on in, probably interested to see whether he could do as he said. When they arrived at the Amphitheatre, and had taken what seats they could, the whole place became a tumult of inhuman frenzy. But Alypius kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such evils. And would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from all the spectators stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity, and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and be superior to it no matter what it was, even when seen, he opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to behold, had been in his body. Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor, which had entered through his ears, and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul, which was more audacious than truly valiant—and weaker too, in that it had presumed on its own strength which ought to have relied on Thee. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savageness. Nor did he turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness—delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. Nor was he now the man he came, but one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him there.… He beheld, he shouted, he was kindled, and he carried away with him the madness that would goad him to return, not only with those who first enticed him to come, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides."
This was the world in which the early Christians lived, and which, through those early Christians, the love of God entered. This was the arena of violence and bloodshed into which the soldiers of God entered and bore witness to the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

 As the Church describes them in one of her hymns, these were the men and women whom the world in its folly rejected; followers of Christ who despised the world that blooms only to whither; who reckoned the pleasures of the world and its enticing allurements to be as joyless and bitter as gall; who bravely passed through tortures and endured them manfully; triumphed over men’s rage and savage threats and cruel scourgings. The hook that fiercely tore them to bits effected nothing and left them, their spirit unconquered. They were cut down by the sword like animals for a sacrifice. No sound, no complaint passed their lips. Instead, their souls, dauntless and sure of its cause, kept their endurance firm and unshaken. They shed their blood for Christ and so obtained their eternal reward. And, within three centuries, they saved the Roman Empire from itself and brought it under the rule of Christ.

My friends, for many reasons our country may be called the greatest country that history has ever seen. Our system of government appears to provide a certain unity and order.

 Our military is the powerful the world has ever seen. Our navy methodically patrols the seven seas and projects our political will the world over.

Since the War of 1812, we have not suffered a major invasion from any foreign power, nor seen social disorder on a grand scale since perhaps the Civil War. Nevertheless, the moral corruption, the degradation and despair that beset the Roman Empire and contributed to its dissolution, can also be seen at work in this country, as well as in many others. Perhaps we may be more discreet in flaunting our debauchery than Roman society once was, but our world is fast becoming as hostile to Christ as the Romans once were, even as it seeks to surpass the filth and dissipation of that ancient Empire — and all in the name of liberty.

But like our ancestors in the faith, we cannot expect to halt the descent into chaos and depravity (and win the world for Christ) unless, considering ourselves as strangers and pilgrims in this world, we abstain from those “carnal desires that war against the soul.” For only in this way will God be able to make effective use of us to convey the light of His truth to our secular neighbors, who have gone astray. As today’s collect reminds us, it is only by rejecting all that is opposed to the Christian way of life and following after the things that befit it will we be able to attract those who have gone astray, so that they may return to the path of justice.

Our coliseums may not be sites of bloodshed and gore, or of sexual perversion on the scale seen in the Roman Coliseum, and throughout the Roman Empire. But our social media, especially the Internet, provide us with plenty of sites — websites — that will entangle us and trap us — and render us virtually useless in bringing about the transformation of today’s world. In short, we must be prepared to take our faith very seriously and put the power of God and the example of Christ into practice in our own daily lives: in the way we treat one another, and in the way we respond to the assaults of the world. For our mission is the same for which Christ came into the world: We seek to reconcile the world to Christ; to let people know by how we live, by all that we do and say, that there is a God, who loves us more than we can ever ask or imagine. And so, when we experience the hatred and rejection of the world, let us remember that the world first hated Christ our Head; that the world is blinded by its own depravity. And above all, let us pray for the grace of perseverance, that we may always remain united to Christ by embracing in faith what He has revealed to us and following His example in the conviction and strength of the Holy Ghost, so that even in the midst of weeping and lamentation, we may always share in the joy of His resurrection.