Good Morning Brothers…
It is not uncommon to see bones out in the woods. Here in the mid-west, much of our hunting ground is shared with the farming community and involves the ‘collision’ between field and forest. Along the edge of fields, where the trees are left to grow, is a collection of stuff which has been pushed off the field under the overhanging branches of the trees. Almost as if the fields were oceans, with their waves depositing treasures onto the shore. This ‘collision’ between field and forest causes a rise in topography and creates ambush points for predators. Spying the bones of cattle, or deer, or whatever…is pretty common. Bones are bones, they mark the passing of a life, but I’ve never given them much thought until I went to Rome. I did not grow up in a faith tradition that gave any importance to the bones of our spiritual ancestors. I pause here…and feel the need to add these words…if any importance was given, I missed it. I may have been absent that day.
Most of you know that I am a builder. I process information through those ports of my brain. There are restaurants in town that I cannot eat in because the trim work is awful. It drives me crazy. I am not particularly fond of building homes on bad ground because of the necessity of fill dirt. Fill dirt is used to ‘fill’ in the bad areas in an attempt to make them good areas. Generally speaking, fill dirt is never as solid as undisturbed natural dirt. We all know that foundations built on shifting soil is bad news…physically and spiritually. Saying this, I was disturbed by the historical accounts of ‘where’ St. Peter’s basilica was built. It was built on a slope. However, the hill sloped two directions. It not only sloped north and south, but it also sloped east and west. This is about the worst possible location to sink a foundation because the amount of fill dirt needed to bring up the level of the ground was astronomical. On top of all that, the hill was already occupied by a graveyard. Not a flat graveyard bearing the headstones of the deceased, but a sharply angled hill bearing the little grave houses of the dead. The tombs were placed here because the ground was no good for anything else.
So why build there?
Because, according to Church tradition, this is where the bones of St. Peter lie.
Now…understand this is where the story gets difficult. The Book of Acts is a historical account of the growth of the Church. It covers about the first 30 years (after Christ) and focuses on some of the Apostles that knew and walked with Christ. This also includes Paul, who didn’t walk with Christ as a disciple but had an encounter with Jesus that validates his place as an Apostle. The Book of Acts is the beginning of Church history but is not the totality of Church history because history continues. To find out what happened after the Book of Acts, we must look to secular history and to Church history which is outside of the Canon of Scripture. This makes us uneasy. In fact, on this side of the Church, the Protestant side, we seem to place more trust in secular historians than Church historians. My own resistance to this has been alleviated by understanding the fragmentation of the Church and when it occurred. I feel it is necessary to provide a abbreviated timeline to capture some important dates of the early Church…our spiritual ancestors.
- AD 313, Edict of Milan (Emperor Constantine (of Rome) signs an Edict which protects all religions from persecution, this legalized Christianity and stopped the outward persecution of Christian believers)
- AD 325, the Council of Nicaea writes and adopts a statement of Christian faith called, ‘The Nicene Creed’ (this Creed was used to combat heresy, or bad doctrine that was entering into the Church, and to validate books and letters as ‘inspired’, or not)
- AD 397, the Canonization of Scripture was completed over about 20 years by different Councils and edicts of the Bishop of Rome (this formalized the Bible and gave Christians the written Word of God)
- AD 1054, East-West Schism (the Church, after years of disagreement on theology and doctrine divides into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church)
- AD 1517, the Reformation (the Church divides again, the Protestants split away from the Roman Catholic Church)
What does all of this have to do with bones and the poor choice of ground in which to build a church building? Well…in an attempt to answer that question, I have to point out that the Church has always been made up of human beings. Human beings in need of repentance and regeneration. This means that our spiritual ancestors were full of pride and vendettas just like we are. As the Church grows, division occurs (we still see this today). This division became more prominent after the Canonization of Scripture in AD 397 and eventually resulted in the Schism of AD 1054 and the Reformation of AD 1517. The New Testament even tells us about factions that developed within the early Church all the way back before the deaths of Peter or Paul. Even while the Apostles were still alive, and their voice was regarded as authoritative, schisms, or factions, still developed. Trying to unearth truth from historical texts of different factions, within the same Church, can be very tedious and demands that we often have to read between the lines with an understanding of ‘who’ the author is because he may have an agenda that causes some historical revision.
What I have come to understand is this; despite the factions, our Church came together to write Creeds that define ‘what’ we believe and used those Creeds, and much prayer, to determine ‘which’ books and letters should be included in the Canon of Scripture. If I can trust in that process…then why can’t I also trust in the records of early Church history? Especially when the earliest Church records, outside of Scripture, were written by men who were discipled by, or had ties to, the Apostles themselves. These early Church records, supported by secular history from Rome, allude to the bones of St. Peter being buried in a tomb on the dual sloping hill. Christians at that time, before Christianity was legal, considered that Holy Ground and protected that location through many different fascinating means.
Are the bones of St. Peter important? Well…they were important to our spiritual ancestors. Next week we will start to unravel this mystery…until then…BLESSINGS.