Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Christianity Triumphs Over Paganism

The painting above is from the ceiling in the "Constantine Room" in the Vatican Museum. It is entitled "Christianity Triumphs Over Paganism." In the painting a statue of Caesar has fallen off the pedestal and broken to pieces on the floor. In its place is a figure of Jesus on the Cross. The message is profound, and reminiscent of the Old Testament story of the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Dagon (1 Samuel 5). The other pictures are of the Cross displayed on top of a building, and the Pantheon in Rome. Because many of the ruins most attractive in Rome predate the acceptance of Christianity there, a strange mixture of pagan and Christian symbols occur, often in the same space.
When Christianity became first a legal religion then finally the State religion, the problem of how to deal with all the pagan temples and rituals came to dominate the thinking of the church. It was a difficult task, because while the best thing would have been a clean slate, that was much to dramatic a move for the church or even the emperors sympathetic to Christianity to make. Rather a process of synthesis began with pagan symbols, rituals and sites being given new "Christian meanings."
The official status granted to Christianity was a blessing, in that it ended the persecutions, but it was also a curse because now there were many adherents to Christianity who were not disciples and had no intention of becoming disciples, rather they were social and political Christians. The church easily took up the trappings of the empire and quickly slipped away from the practices of Jesus concerning servant leadership! The power of the church was growing while the witness of the church to the suffering servant was receding. While there were voices that fought against this process, it was hard to stop. It still is. Often we are good at walking with Jesus until we finally get to the point where we can "do it ourselves." Then we accept worldly systems as the normal operation procedures for the church. This is a fatal mistake.
One ancient theologian said, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Later another theologian said, "In your haste to escape Babylon, do not run past Jerusalem!" The church, as well as individual disciples, has always had to struggle to obey Jesus about being in the world but not of the world. This is still a vital struggle today.

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