Family vacations, for us, used to be a kind of traveling circus: father (ringmaster) curbing the impatient and exhorting the straggler, with mother (trainer) feeding the baby into periodic tranquillity and keeping the toddler securely leashed. This is how we experienced Rome one sweltering August, exactly on the week they warn you not to go.
This Easter we went again, this time with only our youngest child, a sensible 16-year-old girl who disproves every myth associated with adolescence, troubled or otherwise. I know for a fact that we had visited St. Peter’s Basilica on our previous excursion because I have the photographs to prove it. But on this trip, I saw it as though for the first time, its vast facade glowing in the sumptuous morning light of Easter Sunday.
It was the Resurrection dawn at the close of a Holy Week, which I had observed with more attention than usual. I had followed the descent of Jesus into hell in my imagination, populating the familiar scenes with my presence: Here I was a macabre centurion, there a faithless follower, once, in a moment of daring, approaching to wipe his bloodied face. On Easter, I smelled the incense fragrance of the empty tomb in the piazza, where the stone colonnades were spread like the walls of a cave opening to a new light.
Touring Rome, I was impressed by the might of the ancient pagan empire, whose great ruins are strewn throughout the city like the abandoned toys of a race of giants. But I was even more impressed by the imposition, on every pagan vestige, of the cross. I saw it as nothing less than the symbol of victory over the giants by an upstart sect of beings whose strange badge of courage was in meekly going to their deaths.
The majestic piazza of St. Peter’s and the great basilica are like the old Romans’ triumphant arches, stamps of definitive victory. But how to explain the conquest of the cross?
One explanation lies in the Passion narrative itself, in which the path to the victory of Easter exists, strangely, through the dark landscape of suffering and death. It’s a landscape that we are bound to travel through ourselves — an unavoidable part of the human condition. Christianity absorbs this inescapable reality and does something beautiful with it.
The beauty is that God walked with us there, drinking the poison cup to its dregs: humiliation, injustice, betrayal, ridicule, abandonment, hatred, indescribable physical pain, his mother’s grief, and finally the dreadfulness of death. He went down with us, to bring us up to Easter, teaching us humility and forgiveness along the way. He dignified our own suffering and gave us the opportunity to unite it with his, putting our little bit toward the work of salvation.
These are heady theological concepts. But here is something easy to understand and lovely to feel: God loves us so much that he dove in and swam through our darkest griefs to save us when he could have simply stayed on shore and thrown us a life preserver. He set us a model to follow, of meekness and instant forgiveness, and he sends us graces, like shoots of light in the darkness of our grief to guide us on our way.
Suffering, for us Christians, has been elevated from an unavoidable disaster to an occasion for participating in God’s plan of love. Instead of dumb pain, we find intelligible opportunities to grow closer to Our Lord, and the grace to resemble him a little. In the tender words of the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross: “And I saw a river over which every soul must pass to reach the kingdom of heaven and the name of the river was suffering; and I saw a boat which carries souls across the river and the name of that boat was love.”