I spent a couple of hours last week in the Istanbul Museum of Archeology and was able to view the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. It is enourmous and ornate. Originally it was painted in bright colors, some of which can still be seen on the sides and along the top moulding.
This wasnt the only sarcophagus that they had on display, there were the sarcophogai of Egyptians, of royalty, and even peasants.
These elaborate burial structures weren’t just boxes that they were put in after death; They were very expensive, and the ones that remain are, of course, the ones that employed the most expensive techniques; carved of marble and stone, built by expert craftsmen and stone-workers.
And unlike modern day caskets that we bury our loved ones in, these were not ordered and built after your death, they were a life-long project. The wealthy commited exhorbitant amounts of money to design them while they were living so that they could leave behind something that would both proclaim to the world “I was here!”, but also to communicate what they accomplished in their short lives on earth. These stories would have been exageratted, of course, like much of the ancient world. Their physical features were elaborated upon, and images of them destroying their enemies were carved in dramatic poses so that the generations that come after them would believe that they were mighty, brave, and accomplished
So this is how the wealthy citizens of Rome spent their money while they lived, on vanity projects. Making themselves prominent in the eyes of others. Shaping their image in the world. An attempt to convince both themselves and the world that they had not wasted their lives, that they had truly accomplished something; that they had truly used their one life well.
But what you don’t see, until you look close enough, is their quiet desperation. The average Roman would have been raised surrounded by images of power, accomplishment, honor, and glory. The pressure to succeed and to build something great, was immense. To back down in the face of adversity was a great dishonor; to not take part in ‘image building’ was to be shamed and looked down upon. To be honest about your fear of the unknown, your fear of death — and what comes next — was to cease to be a good Roman.
One particular tombstone that I found while wandering the museum moved me. It was the grave marker of a woman, probably young, and obviously poor, judging by the size of it (perhaps the size of a piece of paper). She had written herself a message across the top moulding: “Be brave!” it said in ancient Greek.
Even the poor were forced to play the game of power, spending what little they had to leave their mark, to bend and craft their image, but also – almost accidentally – admitting their utter fear of the unknown journey of death. My heart went out to her, two-thousand years late.
One thing was noticeable, or noticeably absent: there were no graves of Christians.
The Christians did not consider their image, their legacy, or how others viewed them. To become a Christian was to — at the beginning — give up the life of image shaping and displays of power. They were the followers of a crucified and dishonored man who bore shame on purpose. who “being in the image of God didn’t think that being equal with God was a thing that ought to be desired, so he took on the form of, not just a man, but a servant” (my paraphrase of Philippians 2:6-11).
The Christians didn’t spend their money on vanity projects, making their name big, or marketing themselves to others. Instead, they used that money to build communities of loving, caring, generous, and self-sacrificial people who viewed each other as a family. They included all those who were left out and made space for them at their tables. They build transformative relationships with those they disagreed with, and they sought, not to become strong and great, but to become wise and Christlike.
We don’t even know most of their names, and this is by design.
We know where they lived and the impact that they made. Millions of us still talk about them and try to follow in their footsteps today, while the corpses of the greatest romans have returned to dust; their empty sarcophogai are faded and disapearing a little more with every earthquake.
And what of our own children?
They are being raised in a modern — but still very Roman — world. We worry that they will “waste their life working fast food,” or that they won’t “accomplish” anything, and we lay our fears upon their shoulders. They try and gather followers online; they want eyes to look upon them with praise and attention, and we often encourage this behavior because we forget that our legacy is one of love, not power.
I had a theology teacher once say “attention is sacred; that’s why everybody wants it.” This is why the poor and marginalized were so drawn to the church. No one in the empire looked upon them with love, they knew would never be admired, and they had no money to leave their own legacy. But the body of Christ saw them as important. It lifted them up, and taught them that the lowest on earth is the highest in Gods kingdom.
Part of the work of the Christian community is to push back against the identities that the world forces upon us; to stand with vigilance against what we “ought” to do and be. There is nothing to earn, nothing to pursue, and nothing to be or become. At the table of Jesus you are already “enough.”
This is what identity in Christ is all about; understanding that it is the drive-thru window employee and not the president, who is closer to the kingdom of God. And when we die, the types of communities that we leave behind are infinitely more imporant than the buildings or tombstones that bear our names.
When you enter in to the church, you have the attention of the divine. You don’t need some worldly legacy, for you are a part of the body of Christ… “and his kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:33).
So live in him, and rest in him. Grace and peace to you.