“In Those Days, Caesar Augustus…”

You’re probably very familiar with St. Luke’s account of the Birth of Jesus in the Bible.  If you’re Catholic, you hear those words read every year at Midnight Mass, and imagine St. Joseph and a heavily pregnant Virgin Mary, arriving in Bethlehem to enroll in a census, and finding no room at the inn.  However chances are, you’re unaware that the home of the man whom St. Luke credited with playing a crucial part in the timing and location of that birth still stands.

This week Italian authorities announced that after 18 years of work and over $3 million in investment, restoration of the complex on the Palatine Hill in Rome known as the “Domus Augusti” or “House of Augustus” has been completed.  It was the primary residence of Augustus and his family for decades, beginning around 28 B.C., and therefore in a real sense the center of the Western world at the time of his reign.  The Domus Augusti will now be open to the public on a very limited, tour-only basis, and said tours will include sections of the villa which were not previously open to visitors.

For Christians in particular, there is something poignant about this residence.  Certainly, there are historical problems with the timing of St. Luke’s account of a census in 1st century Judea, and the known history of the region in the Augustan Age. Not being a Biblical scholar, I will not attempt to address those issues here.  Nevertheless, one cannot lose sight of the fact that decisions which affected the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ Birth, and therefore Jesus Himself, were made on this spot.

While the furnishings are long gone of course, it is still possible to get a sense of what living in the villa was like.  Many of the walls of the home are decorated with bright, colorful frescoes of architectural vistas and swags of flowers.  What is particularly striking about the Domus Augusti however, is that it is not particularly grand, and certainly not what one would imagine the home of an emperor to look like.  So why would the most powerful man in Rome live in a house that did not reflect his status?

The answer lies in the fact that Augustus was a shrewd politician.  He saw what had happened to his great-uncle Julius Caesar, the man who had adopted the young Octavian (as Augustus then was) as his heir before his assassination.  He also knew that the way to have the people and the politicians stay in line was to keep them happy, in part by not seeming to live like a despot.

Thus, this residence is not the egomaniacal assemblage of later emperors such as Nero, but rather the well-appointed home of a man of means, albeit not one given to indulging in flights of fancy or frippery.  The restrained character of the house was remarked on not only in Augustus’ time, but by later admirers. In his marvelous book “The Twelve Caesars” of around 121 A.D., the Roman historian Suetonius  notes that the Domus Augusti was pretty much just as we perceive it today: “a modest dwelling, remarkable neither for size or elegance, having but a short colonnade with columns of local stone, and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements.”  It seems a strikingly livable home, rather than an imposingly palatial piece of self-aggrandizement.

Of course, for anyone who loves history, grandeur is beside the point when visiting a structure like this.  The thought of the conversations that took place in these rooms, as the Roman Empire spread across the known world, is tantalizing.  To be able to wander down corridors where the real-life characters in Robert Graves’ superb novel, “I, Claudius” once met, to plot and plan with or against Augustus, is to hear the echoes of another time grow just that much stronger.

That being said, what truly gives me pause is the fact that this villa in Rome, and a more humble home in Bethlehem, stood at the exact same time. It is not hard to imagine that one evening, as Augustus stayed up late writing at his desk, or wandered through his garden with a case of insomnia, he was thinking upon many things, but no doubt confident of his own importance and legacy.  Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to the Emperor, the most important person in human history was being born, 1400 miles away: a man whose importance and legacy would far outshine that of the man who lived in this comfortable Roman house.  That connection, for me, is the real wonder of this structure.

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti, on the Palatine Hill in Rome

Looking Great After You’re Dead

Today is Ascension Thursday, when the Church commemorates Christ’s return to Heaven 40 days after His Resurrection, and awaits His return for the Last Judgment at the end of time.  So this is a good opportunity for us to think a bit about what we’re going to look like, when that day comes.  Are we going to have all our real or imagined physical flaws corrected?

For those unfamiliar with the belief in the resurrection of all the dead, this is not a zombie apocalypse theory.  It’s actually a core Christian belief, one which was dividing the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, between Pharisees who professed it and Sadducees who dismissed it.  The idea is, all the dead are raised and given perfected bodies of some sort, and everyone undergoes the Last Judgment, after which some go to Heaven, and some to Hell.

A few spiritual thinkers suggest that when the day arrives and the dead come back, we’re going to end up looking about what we were like around our “Jesus year”, i.e. 33 years old, the approximate age Christ was when He rose from the dead.  I can see how for a lot of people that’s not a bad place to be, particularly if you’re freed from any illnesses or conditions that might have caused you pain at that age.  At 33 you can still be as active as you would like, but you are less reckless or careless about it than you were at 23.

However there’s also the issue of perfectionism when it comes to a resurrected body, which I wonder how God is going to take care of.  Do we get to have that face or body we’ve always wanted? Is God going to treat us like a piece of claymation, making us look any way we’d like, so that we can be “happy” about our appearance? What will make us happy about the way we look, if we’re being given eternal life and eternal bodies to go with it?

Truthfully, we don’t know for sure what we’ll look like, other than some hints we might glean from the Gospels about Christ’s appearance to the disciples after His Resurrection.  For example, we know that He could enjoy material things if He chose, for when He appears to the Apostles in the Upper Room he eats some fish they give Him, to prove He’s not a ghost.  Later still, Jesus even cooks the Apostles a hearty breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  (Perhaps this means God will allow us to have bacon in eternity, but we shall have to wait and see.)

For the Christian, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with imagining, every now and then, what it’s going to be like if we make it to Heaven.  It’s only natural that we will wonder about what we’ll look like, or what we’ll be able to do once we get there.  Yet at the same time, the focus and the goal must always remain on doing what we need to do to get ourselves right on the inside, worrying less about the outside, in order to reach that eternal destination.  God’s not going to care how many beauty pageants you won or how many pounds you could bench, if you never bothered to follow the Commandments He left you to live by.

In the end I suspect that, if and when we get there, how we look will be little more than an afterthought.  We’ll be so unconcerned with our BMI, our wardrobe, our hair, and so on, that all of these concerns about perfecting our appearance will seem to have been little more than a colossal waste of time and resources.  Oh in the meantime I’m still going to comb my hair and pick out snazzy argyle socks, of course, but if I make it upstairs at the end of this life, I for one am really, really looking forward to never ironing again.

"The Resurrection of the Dead" by Luca Signorelli (1502) Duomo, Orvieto, Italy

“The Resurrection of the Dead” by Luca Signorelli (1502)
Duomo, Orvieto, Italy

 

Good Friday: Be the One

Regular readers may recall my review of Dr. Edward Siri’s book, “Walking with Mary”, which I read while spending the day over at the Dominican House of Studies.  One section of the book which particularly struck me was a story about Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  It’s not only related to Scripture, but I think appropriate for this Good Friday.

Mother Teresa had a prayer card with an image of Jesus in suffering on the front.  Below the image it bore a verse from one of the Psalms which we often hear during Lent, particularly on Good Friday or at Stations of the Cross.  Psalm 69 is one of those prophetic Psalms foretelling the “Suffering Servant”, as described more fully in the Book of Isaiah; verse 21 of the Psalm, says, “I looked for one that would comfort me, and I found no one.”

Underneath the image and the quote from the Psalms, Mother Teresa wrote, “Be the one.”

There is something disarmingly simple, but also profound about this juxtaposition.  The call from the Cross, as contained in the Psalm, is answered in the to-the-point response of Mother Teresa. Hers is not simply a pious reaction, but a command to herself.  I liked the combination so much, that I created a Lenten laptop wallpaper with both quotes on it, to remind myself on a regular basis during this season of fasting and penance what I ought to be doing more often all the year through.

Maybe you aren’t called to go out into the slums of a faraway place like Calcutta.  Yet there are people you know who could use some love, some attention, and some comfort from you.  Be the one to bring it to them.

Detail of "Christ Crucified" by Diego Velázquez (1632) The Prado, Madrid

Detail of “Christ Crucified” by Diego Velázquez (1632)
The Prado, Madrid