As I sit on a train from Venice to Naples preparing for a return flight home to NYC, I am reflecting on things I have witnessed. Perhaps I should be reflecting on the amount of pasta I have eaten, but why depress myself after such an enjoyable trip?
Page and I journeyed to Sorrento because I was invited to officiate at a wedding there. The daughter of long-time family friends was getting married. She is a beautiful young woman who lives in L.A., as does her former fiancé (now husband). But most family members were from various places in Europe, so Italy was the destination they chose. The bride, groom, and almost all family members are Muslim. Thus, I was extraordinarily honored to be asked to officiate. Following the wedding, we added a brief few additional days to be in Rome and Venice. The beauty of Sorrento notwithstanding, it is the Rome and Venice leg of the trip that I want to write about.
In Rome, we did what tourists do – the Vatican, the catacombs, the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the oldest church, the Convent with a church under which are chapels with the bones of saints and martyrs, restaurants, gelato, more restaurants, more gelato, etc. At every turn, we were experiencing historical foundations upon which Christianity was built. But I think the moment that seized me with the greatest emotion was when I stood in the Basilica and recognized that if tradition is correct, the bones of St. Peter were buried beneath that altar. There is no way to prove that, of course. But there are historical assertions and indications dating back to the early years after the Resurrection of Jesus that give us reason to believe the tradition may be true.
Fast forward to Venice. Again, there were countless places of cultural and historical significance, but to me the most moving was when we stood in the Basilica of San Marcos and drew as near to the altar as we were allowed. Beneath that altar they believe (again with certain measures of historical evidence) rests the bones of St. Mark.
For a few brief moments we may have been in the presence of the buried remains of St. Peter and St. Mark. To be sure, we walked past the crypts of numerous popes (including Pope John Paul). But, for a moment in two different cities we may have been near the remains of Peter and Mark.
One might argue that standing near the remains of anyone is more memorable than meaningful – something that helps us recall the past but has little influence on the present. But in both those places for me, the meaning was clear. We stand on the bones of those who preceded us. We are indebted to their faith and service, to all they lived and died for. Peter helped set in motion the Christian Church. Mark wrote the earliest gospel (and was a profound influence on the writings of both Matthew and Luke). Peter and Mark told The Story in the first century with such power and passion that the world believed and was changed. When Peter preached at Pentecost, e.g., there were less than 100 Christians alive. By the end of the day with the movement of a fresh, new Spirit, 3,000 more had been added. That’s where it started. Today there are over 2 billion believers around the globe. I could not stand near those crypts without remembering the legacy of those two saints and feeling compelled to do my part to keep it alive.
You and I are called, as they were, to “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love”... through word and deed to proclaim The Message of a living Lord who has the power to transform lives and wills and churches and relationships and families and businesses and communities and governments and the future. Ultimately world-transforming power does not reside in Washington or Moscow or London or Beijing or Paris or any other city where small people think they are large. Real Power resides in large spirits who mistakenly fear we are small. Peter and Mark were no political match for Calligula or Nero. But who knows (or cares) where those emperors’ bones are buried? Tens of thousands a day, however, still pass by the altars where we think the bones are the two saints rest. Why? Because what they did changed things in the right way. They shared The Story. They let the world see what life can be like when Jesus is at the center of things. Perhaps never before has our world needed that message more than it does right now.
So, a I look back at my brief stint in Italy, two things stand out a bit more than all the others: standing near the places where Peter and Mark are thought to be buried. And it wasn’t just about memory. It was just as much about meaning... how if this troubled world has a chance, you and I are meant to do what those two saints did. Their legacy has been entrusted to us. We have to live in such fashion that through us the world will see what life can be like when Jesus is at the center of things.