From the street, you must descend a flight of steps in order to enter San Clemente. The medieval church was built just before 1100, and modern Roman pavement is several feet above the gate of its courtyard. If you keep descending steps, you will find not one but three religious edifices. To understand the impulses that raised these three structures, on the same spot, is to learn an important lesson about the nature of Christian worship and the call of Advent.
Two buildings stood on the original site, some sort of workshop, perhaps an imperial mint, and an insula, a townhouse, the sort of dwelling a middle-class Roman family would have lived in. The ground floor would have been a shop, the upper floor, reserved for the family.
This insula once housed a Mithraeum, a small, barrel-vaulted chamber, about 30-by-20 feet, where a coterie of men would have convened to participate in the cult of Mithras. Mithraism was one of example of what scholars call a mystery religion, which flourished in the first centuries of our era. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright offers this succinct description in his work on Paul:
What does the Christian learn, standing in the center of San Clemente’s Mithraeum? Like the mystery cults, ancient Christianity represented a radical reorientation of ancient religion. At the time of Christ and Caesar, something pivotal was happening in religious life across the globe. Until then, religion was both inseparable, and yet insulated, from what we would call secular life. There was no secular life, if by that you thought that the gods didn’t control all aspects of human existence. On the other hand, before this period, religion was the responsibility of the state, the craft of specialists, who maintained sanctuaries and executed their rituals in the name of the patria. Families had a few particular deities, ancestors akin to patron saints, but all of this existed to keep cosmic forces in balance. No one thought of religion as something one did to find personal existence meaningful. Religion wasn’t a form of self-realization, but that is exactly what those men were seeking, deep in the bowels of San Clemente.
Christianity burst into the Greco-Roman world on the same ground as the mystery religions: the personal quest for meaning. One was baptized into its mysteries as a way of self-fulfillment. That’s what originally made Christianity such a threat to the empire. The faith was about the search for individual meaning, not civic duty. Its adherents also gathered in secret, pursuing rites meant to inculcate a sense of personal dignity, individual destiny.
There was a great difference, however, between Christianity and the mystery religions, one revealed in the second religious edifice at San Clemente. It requires ascending some stars. The first Christian basilica, which rose in the fourth century, occupied the second floor of the old industrial building. Why? Because Christians needed room. They couldn’t meet in a small chambers as the mystery cults did. The faith needed spaces large enough to hold the saints, those baptized into the Christ.
The civic temples of antiquity were typically not spacious either. They didn’t need to be. Only the specialists of civic religion, priests and priestesses, entered them. Ordinary folk, if they took an interest—say, in a time of crisis—stood outside the temple. The word “profane” comes from the Greek, “before the temple.”
Like the mystery cults, Christians entered the sacred spaces of this new religion. Unlike the mystery cults, everyone entered: first, the lower classes; eventually, the upper.
San Clemente contains an important lesson of liturgy, one the church has struggled to maintain, even under threat of sin: You need to show up, every week, because religion isn’t something that can be done for you, and you will not find self-fulfillment on your own.
We aren’t in danger of reverting to ancient forms of religion. Indeed, we’re so assured of the state’s protection that we take its rituals for granted, sometimes with a bit of resentment or even ridicule. Think of the last graduation ceremony you attended.
There is a threat, however, of losing something vital in the ancient faith of Christ. It’s the notion of a plebs sancta, a holy people, who together create the community, one which allows each individual to find a place, to find personal meaning, in short, to flourish.
People often confess to missing Mass by characterizing the lapse as one of laziness. “I should have gotten up and gone, but I didn’t.” But it’s more than a slight sin of sloth. It’s a serious sin of pride. To miss Sunday Eucharist, to fail one’s station in the plebs sancta, suggests that you don’t believe that you need others to find self-fulfillment, to find your God.
We believes that an adveniens, a coming of God, occurs when a young man kneels at prayer beside somebody else’s grandmother, when together they hear the sound of the young family in front of them, struggling to keep their kids content as Father drones on. There is no such assurance, when one prays alone.
And that’s where San Clemente offers one more lesson. Up the steps again, in the apse of the new church, the medieval one, is one of the most magnificent mosaics in the Christian world. At its center stands the cross of Christ, and out of this small piece of wood grows the most luxuriant of vines, covering the entire apse. It is the plebs sancta, the holy ones of God, fulfilling the promise of the Gospel: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk 3:6).
Baruch 5: 1-9 Philippians 1: 4-6, 8-11 Luke 3: 1-6