Saturday, July 31, 2010


We climbed every dome we visited in Italy—my nephew, Jacob, and I. The St. Peters dome in Rome, the Cathedral dome in Florence, the St. Marks dome in Venice, and other sundry domes we spotted. Quite a healthy exercise, this dome-climbing business. Dingy stairwells, narrow stairs, damp and dark. But the end gain result was well worth the pain—a magnificent and unobstructed view of the particular city.

This picture was taken in the stairwell on our way up the dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral (Duomo) of Florence, the dome of which was engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446).

Clearly the curators of the place want the stairwells clean, especially its walls. “Vietato scrivere sui muri” the sign warns. Good intentions.

So also, nothing wrong with God’s law, His divine demand.

… the Law is spiritual ….
Romans 7:14

Good stuff, law!

… the Law is holy,
and the commandment is holy
and righteous and good.
Romans 7:12

But the effort to regulate is wasted, alas! No sooner had the command been issued, the laws began to be broken. All kinds of remarks—relevant, random, mundane—were stimulated by “vietato scrivere” in the stairwell.

Likewise, …

The Law came in so that
the transgression would increase ….
Romans 5:20

Law has a way of doing that, doesn’t it. Someone commands and the command gets broken.

(One way to get something done, a wag recommended, is to prohibit your children from doing it!)

But sin, taking opportunity
through the commandment,
produced in me coveting of every kind;
for apart from the Law sin is dead.
Romans 7:8

In fact, some wisecrack even issued a diktat of his/her own in his/her own Sharpie hand on the Duomo stairwell: “Do not write on the walls.” An echo? Another rule? A reinforcement of the printed message? All kinds of hermeneutical options!

But one thing is clear: the law has been broken. And, indeed, all of us have broken God’s divine demands.

… for all have sinned and
fall short of the glory of God,
Romans 3:23

And the result? The Law kills—i.e., the breaking of the law ultimately results in death.

… when the commandment came,
sin became alive and I died.
Romans 7:9

Sad. What promised to be a happy ending for “Hugo y Laura” (as declared on the wall of the stairwell) apparently turned out badly. Hugo, later, seems to have returned to Florence to withdraw his name from the duet. They, it appears, didn’t live happily ever after.

And we won’t either.

The breakage of God’s demands is sin and the consequence is eternal separation from holy God.

For the wages of sin is death ….
Romans 6:23a

Maybe that’s why another scribble-happy dome-visitor inscribed: “La vida duele”—the painful, hurting life!

There really is no hope! Not through law-keeping, for sure.

But there is another way—through God’s grace, His free gift,

… but the free gift of God is eternal life
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6:23b

Perfection may be impossible. But forgiveness is not. Somebody, praise God, paid the penalty for our sins. And through Him, Jesus Christ, we have forgiveness.

If we confess our sins,
He is faithful and righteous
to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us
from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9

And so we forgiven sinners continue in obedience.

But thanks be to God that …
you became obedient from the heart
to that form of teaching
to which you were committed ….
Romans 6:17

And don’t write on walls, please!

Saturday, July 24, 2010


The “clothes police” all over Italy, particularly in Rome, are pretty strict when it comes to entering churches, including the Vatican.

No shorts. No bare knees. No bare shoulders. That’s the rule. Or the clothes cops will arrest, jail, and deport you summarily!

(Just kidding! In fact, in many of the souvenir shops outside the Vatican and other churches, you can buy a one-off pair of paper pants! And a temporary shawl will cover the exposed shoulders.)

But the clothing constabulary stringently maintains decorum. Non-church buildings are exempt from this clothing rule. There’s something about churches and clothing ….

Maybe it stems from the metaphorical use of clothing in the Bible. Appropriate clothing before God, that is.

A fundamental biblical understanding of mankind is that it is sinful by nature—“clothed” with sin.

For all of us have become
like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds
are like a filthy garment; …
And our iniquities, like the wind,
take us away.
Isaiah 64:6

This is an uncleanness that we can do nothing about. No way to get rid of this on our own. God has to take the initiative. Only God can cleanse.

In fact, right after the first human sin, perpetrated by Adam and Eve, one of God’s gracious acts was the literal clothing of this sinful pair. They were given garments of skin, it says, implying death of some animal or another.

The LORD God made
garments of skin
for Adam and his wife,
and clothed them.
Genesis 3:21

In other words, God has to give us appropriate clothing by which we may renew a relationship with Him. The marvelous thing about this is that these “clothes” are free!

I will rejoice greatly in the LORD,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me
with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me
with a robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself
with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself
with her jewels.
Isaiah 61:10

Garments of salvation and robes of righteousness, indeed! Appropriate for the bride of Christ.

Let us rejoice and be glad
and give the glory to Him,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come
and His bride has made herself ready.
It was given to her to clothe herself
in fine linen, bright and clean;
for the fine linen is
the righteousness of the saints.
Revelation 19:7–8

This righteousness is, of course, not ours, but that of Christ, who “gave” us his righteousness, exchanging it for our sin.

He made Him who knew no sin
to be sin on our behalf,
so that we might become
the righteousness of God in Him.
2 Corinthians 5:21

And so for the one who believes in Jesus Christ, God incarnate, that He paid for our sins, there is eternal life.

For the wages of sin is death,
but the free gift of God is eternal life
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6:23

And our clothing?

For all of you who were
baptized into Christ
have clothed yourselves with Christ.
Galatians 3:27

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Charles Wesley, 1738

And now, appropriately clothed, we render to God the worship that is due to Him, and to Him alone.

Ascribe to the LORD
the glory due His name; …
Worship the LORD in holy attire.
1 Chronicles 16:29

Don’t let the clothes police nab you!

Saturday, July 17, 2010


There he is, one of the Cohors Pedestris Helvetiorum a Sacra Custodia Pontificis a.k.a. the Swiss Guard, effectively the military of the Vatican City. This cohort came into being in 1506 under the aegis of Pope Julius II (who also was the patron of Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel). Huldrych Zwingli, then a Swiss Catholic (later one of the foremost of the Reformers) lauded this recruitment of the Swiss to guard the Mother Church’s freedom. Arguably, these dudes were the best mercenaries in the business, provided they were fed well and paid well. Their task was—and is—to guard the Pope and the Apostolic See.

Yes, you gotta be Swiss, Catholic, male, between 19 and 30 years old, and at least 5’ 9’’. And, if selected, you are sworn in on a May 6 in the Cortile di San Damaso (San Damaso Courtyard) in the Vatican. That day is significant. It was on May 6, 1527, that Rome was plundered by the Habsburgs, and it was only the heavy toll in life paid by the Swiss Guard—147 of 189 killed—that enabled Pope Clement VII to escape, escorted by the remainder of this valiant band.

So, if you are picked, you swear, on a May 6: “I vow to faithfully, honestly and honorably serve the reigning Pope [name] and his legitimate successors, and to dedicate myself to them with all my strength, ready to sacrifice, should it become necessary, even my own life for them.”

The motto of the Swiss Guard is inscribed proudly on their banner: Fortiter et fideliter—“Strongly and Faithfully.” As you are sworn in, your left hand touches the banner, and your right hand is raised with its first three fingers extended in three axes to represent the Trinity.

“Strongly and Faithfully.”

These guys rarely bow the knee. If you watch the telecast of a Vatican Mass, you’ll seek them kneel only once, when, during the recitation of the Nicene Creed, these words are uttered: Et incarnatus est (“And He [Jesus Christ] became Man”).

“Strongly and Faithfully.”

That’s a mandate for all of us who are believers in Jesus Christ, as well.

Be on the alert,
stand firm in the faith,
be courageous, be strong.
1 Corinthians 16:13

“Strongly and Faithfully.”

Wait for the LORD;
Be strong and
let your heart take courage;
Yes, wait for the LORD.
Psalm 27:14

This strength is no self-concoction, no product of auto-suggestion or positive thinking. Not at all. This strength comes from God Himself.

For this reason
I bow my knees before the Father …
that He would grant you,
according to the riches of His glory,
to be strengthened with power
through His Spirit
in the inner man.
Ephesians 3:14, 16

“Strongly and Faithfully.”

And as a result of our strengthening by God, we have a responsibility to be faithful to Him.

It is required of stewards
that one be found faithful.
1 Corinthians 4:2

Faithful in everything—all that we say, do, and think.

Women must likewise be …
faithful in all things.
1 Timothy 3:11

(Needless to say, that goes for men, too!)

“Strongly and Faithfully.”

A tough assignment. We know that we are inadequate of ourselves to conduct ourselves strongly and faithfully.

Not that we are adequate in ourselves
to consider anything
as coming from ourselves,
but our adequacy is from God,
2 Corinthians 3:5

And by His strengthening, by the adequacy He provides, we can be strong and faithful so that, one day, we will hear from Him:

“Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Matthew 25:21, 23

Fortiter et fideliter!

Saturday, July 10, 2010


That’s part of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), on Piazza Navona, in Rome. The fountain is a magnificent piece of sculpture by Gainlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), a dude who has left his mark all over Rome. This work of art has an obelisk surrounded by four gods of the four major rivers of the world (that were known at that time): the Nile, Danube, Rio de la Plata, and Ganges. This particular god in the picture is the Ganges. But ol’ Bernini got it all wrong: Ganges is female!

Over 1,500 miles long, India’s “national river” spans almost all of the northern width of the country. It is the holiest river for Hindus; in fact, it is a goddess, Ganga; mentions of it (“her”?) are found in the oldest Hindu scriptures. Some devout Hindus consider life incomplete if they have not had a dip in the river at least once in their lifetimes. I remember my Hindu neighbors (this in South India, far, far away from the River) keeping a bottle of Ganga jal (Ganga water) in their home. It is thought that the water from this goddess can cleanse one’s soul.

It’s true, only a divine being can cleanse sin.

Who can forgive sins but God alone?
Mark 2:7

Jesus, claiming divinity, took on that authority, calling himself as the “Son of Man”—his favorite self-referring title.

The Son of Man has authority on earth
to forgive sins.
Mark 2:10

And so the Psalmist appealed to God …

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:2

To be cremated and have one’s ashes dispersed in the Ganga is of great symbolic significance—George Harrison, erstwhile Beatle, did it, too. Not surprisingly, all of this popularity causes pollution to run high in the river: TIME once ranked the Ganges among the ten most polluted rivers of the world.

For Christians, the answer to the problem of sin is the divine being, Jesus Christ.

The blood of Jesus [God’s] Son
cleanses us from all sin.
If we confess our sins,
He is faithful and righteous
to forgive us our sins
and to cleanse us
from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:7, 9

We all seek that kind of cleansing and forgiveness, that gives us release, redemption, relief.

Wash me, and I shall be
whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness,
Psalm 51:7–8

The most important Hindu festivals occur on the banks of the Ganga, particularly the Kumbh Mela every 4–12 years, and the Maha Kumbh Mela every 144 years. The last of the latter was held in 2001, with 60 million people congregating at the Ganges—the largest gathering anywhere in the world in recorded history—all seeking absolution!

God recognizes that need for forgiveness. His love invites us:

“Come now, and let us reason together,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are as scarlet,
They will be as white as snow;
Though they are red like crimson,
They will be like wool.”
Isaiah 1:18

For those who place their trust in Jesus Christ as Savior, that cleansing is accomplished—sin is no longer an issue separating man from God.

For the wages of sin is death,
but the free gift of God
is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6:23

Are you washed in the blood,
In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?
Are your garments spotless?
Are they white as snow?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Elisha Hoffman (1878)

Take a bath!

Sunday, July 04, 2010


That’s the Pont Sant’Angelo (Holy Angel Bridge) spanning the river Tiber and connecting to the city center of Rome. This, in olden days, used to be the main bridge for pilgrims to get to St. Peter’s Basilica; so, way back when, it was also called Pons Sancti Petri (Bridge of St. Peter). In the seventh century, Pope Gregory the Great renamed it Sant’Angelo, because of Archangel Michael who apparently landed on the roof of a nearby castle and sheathed his bloody sword, announcing the end of the plague that had decimated the city in 509 A.D.

For many centuries, this portal for pilgrims was a place to display the dead bodies of those executed—criminals and other unsavory elements. Pole Clement VII didn’t care for these gruesome spectacles and so, in 1535, erected statues of Peter, Paul, the Evangelists, Adam, Noah, etc., to line the bridge. A century later, the crumbling figures were replaced with a project that has stood the barrage of time and elements ever since. Pope Clement IX, in 1669, commissioned a new balustrade and ten figures of angels bearing the instruments of the suffering of Christ. (A magnificent brainwave of a project, if you ask me!)

So you have an angel with a column (representing Jesus’ being tied to it to be whipped), an angel with a whip, one with Veronica’s veil, an angel with a garment and a dice, an angel with a nail, one with the cross, another with the superscription (“Jesus Nazarene, King of the Jews” or I.N.R.I), an angel with a sponge (of vinegar), and one with a lance. Absolutely fascinating—we had fun trying to figure out what each one stood for. All have their backs to the river and so face the throngs of pilgrims making their way to St. Peter’s. (Of the earlier statuary, Peter and Paul still remain, at the south end of the bridge.)

So you basically have angels lining a symbolic Way of the Cross, reminding pilgrims of the Passion of Jesus Christ, as they head towards their destination.

That Passion, folks, is worth remembering!

Even today, believers continue to remember the death of Jesus Christ with concrete and tangible elements—the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

… the Lord Jesus in the night
in which He was betrayed took bread;
and when He had given thanks,
He broke it and said,
“This is My body, which is for you;
do this in remembrance of Me.”
In the same way He took the cup also
after supper, saying, “This cup is
the new covenant in My blood;
do this, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of Me.”
1 Corinthians 11:23–25

Jesus’ Passion (indeed, His life, death, and resurrection) set us free. He freed us from the slavery of sin and the power of death, paying for our sins once and for all.

Therefore, since the children
share in flesh and blood,
He Himself likewise
also partook of the same,
that through death
He might render powerless him
who had the power of death,
that is, the devil, and might free those
who through fear of death
were subject to slavery all their lives.
Hebrews 2:14–15

Freed with a price, a terrible price!

… you were not redeemed with
perishable things like silver or gold …,
but with precious blood, as of
a lamb unblemished and spotless,
the blood of Christ.
1 Peter 1:18–19

For believers, this sacrifice, that won us eternal life, is worthy of remembrance, now and always.

We’ve been freed, never to forget!