Sermon preached at Sung Mattins at All Saints' Rome on the 10th Sunday after Trinity
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,
In the past year and a half, Rome has been the quietest it has ever been - at least for most of us born after the last world conflict. This has given us time to reflect and ponder on the beauty of this Eternal City.
I always loved exploring some known and unknown treasures of a city where beauty has become not an ideal but a defined form.
If you take a stroll down the Piazza Navona and then venture towards the tiny streets and alleys beyond the huge Baroque church of Saint Agnes you will find the little church of Santa Maria della Pace.
The tiny church with its beautiful facade by Pietro da Cortona, has inspired many buildings in Italy and abroad, notably St. Mary-le-Strand in London. It sits in a little piazza which in normal times would serve as one of the hotspots for Rome’s frenetic nightlife.
Like many other churches in Rome it was founded after a supposed miracle in which Mary appeared, the early Renaissance commemorative fresco still sits as an altarpiece for the high altar.
Not many would venture there - but even more so than other churches in Rome this is filled with stunning artworks, Renaissance and Baroque altars sit in every corner of the building, many of them by the great names of Italian art.
Most notably, as one enters the church is the stunning depiction of the Sibyls by Raphael himself. Commissioned by rich banker and philanthropist Agostino Chigi in the early 16th century - it represents the four sibyls, ancient female oracles, that according to a later Roman tradition foretold the coming of Christ before the great biblical prophets.
It is a great example of a confident Renaissance spirituality that was not more afraid of Rome’s pagan past but celebrated it in a true Humanistic spirit, that is to say the achievements of the human race were celebrated and not scorned. It was a spirituality that welcomed and made its the glorious past of its hometown, like many other spiritual traditions exist nowadays in many parts of the world.
When nowadays people tell you, you know, Christmas was actually a Pagan festival once - you can respond and say, actually the Romans chose a big holiday and adapted it to the new religion. Quite clever, I would say. This is exactly what is going on here, adapting to change and making it one’s own - essentially improving it, and if you have a great history behind, why not glorify it?
Now, why am I going on about Raphael’s sibyls, the beauty of Rome and its history or the importance of change?
This tiny church to me has always been one of Rome’s many secret escapes, I would take refuge here when in need of time alone, in need of a cool church to walk into... and sometimes even refreshments... either when studying or just in need of chill.
Why? Because Santa Maria della Pace doesn’t cease to wonder. The church also happens to have a beautiful Renaissance cloister designed by Bramante, and there is a rather fancy cafe with a window that overlooks the beautiful frescoes by Raphael. It is very easy to take refuge there, with a nice coffee or drink, a book to read or an article to write.
Today’s passage from the gospel of John follows the renowned lines of Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Sometimes we all have our needs, spiritual, physical or mental - some of you may have breakdowns, others might not be aware of what is going wrong - I am sure we can all identify what is wrong with us sometimes and when we are in need of a refreshing restart.
That is what places like this tiny church are to me, a place where to escape thoughts and the business of everyday life.
Sometimes we need to escape these thoughts that are buggering us in a spiritual manner - that is when we are in need of Christ. We might not feel like we need it, but Christ, our bread of life and cup of salvation is always there for us.
Not necessarily in a stable, fixed way - the beauty of God’s nature is that is unchangeable and yet adaptable. God became man, God was with us - and God comes to us in multiple ways. Even when we do not feel like praying - we are able to seek Christ and Christ is able to find us. Sometimes we just have to allow it to happen.
I have been through a rough bunch of events in my life - not always have I been able to process them, sometimes it is important to seek God in all the way that he manifests himself to us. Sometimes one might need a therapist, Other times one could hurt oneself, and might need a doctor. This recent pandemic has shown us how important medicine is to us. That is one more way in which God finds us - in help and succour - just as he does when we are helping the least fortunate or are doing the right action. Other times one might make a mistake and might need a friend and God is there too.
Life is not easy - like we all do - I have often thought and prayed for those friends who need a doctor, of those friends who are suffering or those friends who are unable to diagnose their mental health and could do with a therapist or those friends who are afraid of getting a vaccine. Sometimes change is necessary, it is a benefit to us but it is even more a benefit to society, unless some third reasons prevent it - why not get help instead of trying to hurt those around you, either by word or by deed. This is how we help those who can’t be helped, those don't believe in therapy work, those who really can’t get vaccinated but who may die because of a disease or those who may die because of our actions and their consequences on countries that are already suffering because of the consequences of climate change.
Change is important - that is how Christ becomes manifest to us in multiple ways. The greatness of that beauty of holiness is how Christ is able to enter our lives in one way or another. Most of us actively seek him in church but he really is everywhere, to me he is in nature, at a desolate beach or in a beautiful Roman church, with its beautiful and timeless frescoes that speak of a God that adapts itself to the changes and chances that society puts before us.
The rest of the work is for us to carry on - to get our act together and play our part for those or for those things who can’t do anything about it - being a good Christian is not an act of selfishness. All we have to do is to go and find refugee and Christ will find us - sometimes even trying that can be a challenge. The key to finding Christ is needing help - God is like that annoying mosquito that is biting you at night, you keep sending it away and there it comes back, you can’t see it but it is there.
Christ tells us: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life”.
By coming here this morning, you’ve welcomed Christ into your lives once again, be sure that he will be there at the hour of need, and when the hour of need comes, be still and listen so that you may help others and bring his Word into the world.
If you ever pass by that beautiful church to admire Raphael’s fresco - think of how a deity of a people that murdered Christians later became a symbol that foretold the coming of Christ. God adapts himself in unimaginable ways - don’t ever lose hope. He is already sustaining you through your next hour of need. Christ comes to you in multiple ways - just let him in and help him helping you actively. Go find refuge and he shall find you - the doors of the kingdom of heaven are open before us.