If you ever go to Rome and want to take an interesting walk, I’d recommend you go to the city gate at the Porta di San Sebastiano and walk south along one of the oldest roads in the world, the Via Appia, to the catacombs and church of San Sebastiano.
Once outside the city gates, you find yourself in what the ancient Romans called the “limes,” the limits, the world beyond the walls and the protection of the city. A different world altogether.
I remember walking that road years ago; no cars and hardly any people on it, deserted fields all around. The only sound to hear was the sound of your own breathing and your footsteps.
The deserted area beyond the city, the “limes,” meant many things to the ancient Romans. Civilized, reasonable life stopped there. Not a place to live, they believed. Stay on the road and go to the next town. By the way, the word “limes” gets into our own phrase “speed limit;” beyond this speed you could lose your life.
A good walk on the Via Appia brings you to the catacombs, the great underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead. They buried them there, I think, not to hide them, but because they saw it as an appropriate place. On their journey to a new unknown world, the dead no longer belonged in the city; they were on their way to a new city. The “limes,” a mysterious place that marked the end of civilized life, also foreshadowed a new life beyond this one.
The “limes” was a place where God alone had you in his hands.
The last line of our gospel from Luke for the Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist says:
“ The child grew and became strong in spirit,
and he was in the desert until the day
of his manifestation to Israel.”
From birth, John took a different path than his family had taken, the gospels indicate. They argue over his name when he’s born. He wasn’t going to take his father Zachariah’s name, or follow him in the temple as priest or a scholar of the law. Leaving what was familiar and secure, John went into the desert– the Jewish equivalent of the “limes.” There he was solely in God’s hands, who readied him to welcome the Messiah.
Centuries before, God led the Jews from Egypt through the desert for a new birth in a new land. Leaving the world they knew they traveled without a map a world unknown. Later, they remembered this time they often cursed then, as a blessed time. They were in God’s hands. He alone was their strength.
Can we learn anything from this? Most of us don’t go to live in physical deserts and we stay within our limits, but we do face deserts, limits anyway. Life is never without limits, where we face things we didn’t expect, like sickness, or death, or separation, or divorce, or the loss of a job, or lost friends or places we know and love. The desert’s never far from any of us.
But there are blessings to be had there, as John the Baptist points out in the beautiful readings applied to him from Isaiah:
“Though I thought I had toiled in vain,
and for nothing, uselessly, spent my strength,
yet my reward is with the LORD,
my recompense is with my God.”
Yes, there are doubts, fears, uncertainty. But we don’t face limits or experience the desert alone. God promises to be there. Find his loving presence. God is there.