Rising from the ashes is, I suppose, the theme of every Lent and Easter season, though it appears especially appropriate this year. On a personal note, this will be the first time since 2020 that I will be able to return to one of Rome’s great Lenten traditions, the station churches.
I managed to complete the full itinerary my second year here in Rome–and my first Lent as a priest–and wrote about the experience in a series of articles for America Magazine, the first of which gives some background on the tradition: A Jesuit’s Lenten pilgrimage through the station churches of Rome.
The following year, balancing other obligations, I hit about half the churches, and then in 2020, in the second week of Lent, Rome’s churches closed. It seemed as if Nero had gotten his way at last.
Last year was just as bleak–in many ways, more so–but this year the seminarians at the North American College are organizing the Lenten pilgrimage, slightly modified, again. And it’s time–well past time, in fact–to get up again and walk. It’s been too easy in these past two years to give in to inertia and bad habits, to isolation and fear. And once in the habit, one can always find some new reason to cower; fear is a disease with endless variants. So it’s good to do a bit of spiritual physical therapy, a concept not so oxymoronic as it might seem for a religion that professes the resurrection of the body, the Incarnation of God, and the effectiveness of sacraments.
In physical therapy, we try to regain that vigor that has atrophied, and I’d wager I’m not the only one to feel the need for something like that this Lent. It’s fitting that the journey of Lent leads right back to the beginning, to the celebration of baptism at the Easter Vigil. And repeating a tradition like the station churches takes you back over territory you–and countless others–have trod before, with variations each time. I suppose this is because rising from the ashes rarely happens all at once. It involves false steps and stumbles and overcoming the disappointment of inevitable detours.
But I think there’s wisdom in returning to the font, to the source of our faith and what is most fundamental to it, to remembering why we are here to begin with and retracing the path that set us on the journey the first time.
The traditional kick-off church for Lent in Rome is Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, which–perhaps appropriately if we’re starting in the ashes–will not be open to pilgrims this year. An inauspicious beginning, yes, but then so was Adam’s first brush with temptation. Still, I visited Santa Sabina ahead of time. Among the church’s most remarkable features is the top left panel of its wooden door, not all that striking visually, truth be told, but the little panel dating from A.D. 430 is the oldest known artistic rendering of the crucifixion. We’re habituated to seeing the crucifix by now, but imagine how paradoxical it must have seemed at first to put that symbol of death and criminality on your front door.
The other remarkable feature of Santa Sabina are the windows, and the way the morning light streams through the latticework. Reading about the church’s history this year, I discovered that the windows had been bricked up during a Renaissance renovation, blocking the light. Apparently, it seemed a good idea at the time.
That’s how it goes sometimes. But the church was renovated again a century or so ago and the windows restored to their original look.
And the light is coming through once more.