By Corey Close
In the coming weeks, we as a Christian people will celebrate the greatest mysteries our faith has to offer.
The time of Lent has been a preparation for these great mysteries, especially for our brothers and sisters who will receive the sacraments for the first time this Easter Vigil.
Now the time for preparation comes to a close as this weekend we will celebrate Palm Sunday and the commemoration of Our Lord’s Passion. Soon, the great mystery of Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection will unfold before us.
As you can imagine, living here in Rome provides us seminarians with the privilege of being able to celebrate these mysteries with the pope, most notably the Good Friday service held in the Colosseum. The Colosseum, a place renowned for throwing Christians to the lion and the sword, gives a solemn backdrop to the mystery of Christ’s own sufferings.
At the hands of their persecutors, men and women died in the Colosseum for the Christian faith they held so dear; they could not have done so if Christ had not suffered first. For it is in his passion that all Christians carry their own crosses and, even with joy, may die for him. Every martyr, from the ancient world to our own day, brings forth the passion of Christ in a new way. It is sad and tragic, especially in our own times, that people are still killed for their beliefs, but it is in their sacrifice that the world is converted to Christ.
The Colosseum holds more for our reflection still. When those who were killed in the arena were buried, usually in the catacombs, paintings were put around their place of burial. The martyrs were depicted victoriously holding a palm branch. In the ancient world, the palm branch was the award given to victors in combat, and now these men and women, who conquered evil with their love and faith, bear palm branches for all eternity.
This surely brings this coming Sunday to mind, when we celebrate Christ’s victorious entrance into Jerusalem where palm branches were placed at his feet. His triumph, like the martyrs who followed him, was at once brave and humble. The martyrs entered the Colosseum defenseless and mocked; Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey and was mocked by those who killed him.
But Good Friday, as we know in faith, is not the end. Christ’s tomb was not his end, nor were the catacombs the end for the martyrs of Rome. Their victories were not simply moral victories. Christ conquered death definitively, and the martyrs who followed him sowed the seeds of the faith.
The Colosseum, where so many innocent people were put to death, is now a relic of the past. The city that persecuted and killed Christians is now the center of the Roman Catholic Church. The evil has been turned upside down on its head, and light has emerged from the darkness.
We all know our world holds many evils, and with the many natural disasters and wars with which our world is plagued, who can have hope? But when we look to Christ’s empty tomb, we know that death does not have the final say.
In the account of the world, the martyrs of Rome were failures. But who won? Christianity prevailed, while the unjust persecution of the Romans died away. To those who witnessed the death of the martyrs, the Colosseum was their tomb, and if any of you has ever had the privilege to see the Colosseum in person, you might agree with their assessment. But if it is a tomb, surely, it is an empty one.
(Corey Close is a third-year seminarian studying for the Diocese of Davenport at the North American College in Rome.)