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3/1/2018 9:00:00 AM
In the shadow of Vesuvius

Has this ever happened to you? Just when everything seemed to be going so well, suddenly calamity strikes. I just returned from Rome. As usual, so many lessons and insights to be learned from an ancient civilization! This time, I visited Pompeii and Herculaneum on a day trip. Praying along the way, so that God might employ their experience for my instruction and edification, I found myself once again led to the mystery of the cross.

The citizens of these seaside towns lived surprisingly comfortable lives. Like all mortals, they sought peace, prosperity and security. Through their intelligence and industry, they enjoyed much of what still attracts opportunity seekers to urban life: excellent commercial conditions, business and social links, cultural and sporting events -- and food. Evidence is growing that these citizens enjoyed a rich and diverse diet that more than rivals the abbondanza of our megahubs, the world's most "connected" cities.

One of the world's oldest and best-preserved amphitheaters lies a few paces away from Pompeii's commercial fora and the residences which included both magnificent villas and apartment houses with running water. I was struck by one particular Pompeian home, probably of a well-heeled patrician, which had sumptuous, frescoed bathing and dining areas, fountained courtyards and luxuriant gardens. In the center of this lavish complex, an ancient architect had placed the window of what was perhaps a living room, carefully, craftfully framing the towering, imposing Mount Vesuvius.

August 24, 79 A.D., dawned and meandered just like any other sultry summer morning. Then suddenly at 1 p.m., disaster struck. No one knew Vesuvius was a dormant volcanic monster, harboring a seething sea of magma about to explode. Latin had no word for "volcano." The slopes of Vesuvius were lush and green with groves of fruit trees. Vines crept right up to the rim. People were about the bustle of their midday business and the pursuit of pleasure. Another reality was about to impose itself upon them: Nature is not of human creation or design, but a mysterious, primordial force to be reckoned with.

Meditating on our Lenten Scriptures, we find similar blasts of spiritual provocation that should awaken us from any religious slumber. Habit and ritual alone, however time-worn and comforting, will not save our humanity from its confrontation with mortality. This is what Lent is all about, as Ash Wednesday proclaimed with the sign of an ashen cross.

Reviewing texts we have been reading during Lent, the same Spirit that descended upon Jesus, rising from the waters of John's baptism, drove Him into a howling desert to be tempted. The same truth about the Son of Man, revealed to a self-assured and suddenly elevated Simon Peter, would humiliate him as, emboldened, he would succumb to Satan's counsel, tempting Jesus away from the cross. A peak experience on Mount Tabor, transfiguring how three Apostles envisioned the past and future of salvation history, would end in a stern warning not to freeze-frame their view from any summit, which did not embrace a Calvary.

Before every Easter Sunday, there must be a Good Friday.

Life holds continuous temptations for us to see the goal and high point of religion as the unwelcoming of pain and making people feel better. This is Satan's trap, even for Jesus: "If you are the Son of God, then...." Just as, anciently, to Adam and Eve: If you will indulge in the fruit of this tree -- follow the advice of the serpent -- you will be gods.

To be the new Adam, Jesus would know in His human consciousness the temptation to deny His mortal humanity. Even at Gethsemane, as to the end on the cross itself, the ancient tempter, while promising, would not give Him peace. Salvation does not lie in "immortalizing" the ecstasy of earthly moments, but in taking up the cross that accepts pain and even death itself as the way to eternal life.

Our mission as disciples is to encounter and accompanying one another and those to whom we are sent along this way. We console in our sorrows, celebrate in the midst of trials our great hope, ascend Mount Calvary at each Eucharist where we look upon the face of Him alone who will break the bonds of our death by feeding us with His life.

What strengthens us is not our history and mementos, but His deeds and our future with Him in His glory. We memorialize and celebrate sacramentally what God has accomplished in the course of history. We look forward to the life that lasts and is to come. This life is our salvation. It cannot be Instagrammed into a personal "picture window," printed on a holy card or even architected into an ecclesial worship space, no matter how well designed. Our life and our hope come from a hill called Calvary, where our eyes are drawn to the beauty of the saving cross of Jesus Christ.

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)

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