But we preach Christ crucified… – 1 Corinthians 1:23a
As most of you know, Ruth were away the past two weeks. We were in Italy, celebrating our 40 years of married life. Thank you for allowing us to go and a special thanks to those who, to our great surprise, contributed financially to this event. The trip was over two years in the planning and to be able to return knowing that it has been fully paid for…well, that was and is great.
Our trip took us briefly to Paris before making our way on to the Italian cities of Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. Florence was our favorite, although Venice is, without question, the most unique (no roads or cars, only bridges and boats). Ruth and I estimate that we walked approximately 10 miles every day. To reach our first Airbnb apartment required walking up 101 steps (no elevator); another place had 90 steps. We climbed to the top of the Duomo in Florence (463 steps) as well to the top of St. Peter's basilica (551 steps). But we liked Florence the best because it was not the big city that Rome or Naples have become and it has a much more religious feel than the other places, even more so than Rome where the Vatican is located. It also was cleaner.
One thing that made a huge impression upon us – in all of these cities – was the prevalence of large and beautifully decorated Roman Catholic church buildings. Even the most humble of these buildings vastly surpasses anything we have ever seen in the U.S. Most of these buildings are anywhere from 400 to 800 years old. They are truly magnificent. Many of them took 100 or more years to build. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, in Florence, went for well over 100 years waiting for a dome to be constructed over the large opening left when the building was completed in the 13th century. Finally, after all that time, Filippo Brunelleschi – a man with zero experience in engineering or architecture – came up with a plan and design as to how that opening could be capped. And after all that time his design is still there to be admired and marveled at as even to this day it is the largest free-standing dome in the world.
And then there were, of course, the many museums that we visited. And within those museums the untold number of painting of Christ: as a baby, with Mary, as a boy in the temple, walking on the water, being flogged, being crucified, resurrected, ascending, and judging the world. There were literally tens of thousands of Chinese tourists that we saw along the way and it made us wonder how much these images of Christ were possibly making any sense to them.
On one of the church buildings I saw the words O CRUX AVE SPES UNICA inscribed in bold letters over the large front doors. The translation of that Latin phrase would be "Hail, o cross, our only hope." Learning, as we did on this trip, of various truly CORRUPT Popes, we gained a better understanding as to why the Reformation ever took place. But even in the midst of all the corruption, egotism and prying for more power and more wealth, the cross of Christ – our only hope – was so, so evident. Italian Renaissance artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bellini or Caravaggio may have done the bidding of a number of truly despicable popes (have you heard of Julius II? Don't worry, in some upcoming sermon you will!), but the gospel message, with the cross of Christ at the very center of it, showed through regardless. And in that sense we – Ruth and I – felt particularly close to many of these artists. Because for all the politics and antics that they had to put up with, the cross of Christ, our only hope, still came through loud and clear.