It may have changed, but there’s an interesting Sunday walk in Rome I’d recommend. Go out 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.
Outside the city gates, you’re in what the ancient Romans called the “limes,” the limits, the world beyond the city, a different world altogether.
To the ancient Romans the “limes” meant many things. Civilized, reasonable life ended there. No place to live, they believed. Get where you’re going as soon as you can. The word “limes” enters our own phrase “speed limit;” beyond this speed you could lose your life.
On that road years ago there were no cars, few people, deserted fields all around. The only sound was the sound of your own breathing and your footsteps.
The Via Appia brings you to the catacombs, the great underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead. They buried them there, I believe, not to hide them, but because this place was an image of a new unknown world. The “limes,” marked the end of this life and foreshadowed a new life. The dead no longer belonged in the city; they were going to a new city.
In the “limes” 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 was destined for 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 into the desert. Leaving the world they knew they traveled with no map to a world unknown. They were in God’s hands, who alone was their strength.
Most of us don’t live in physical deserts or even go beyond our limits. Yet, try as we may to avoid them, we face them anyway in things we didn’t expect, like sickness, or death, or separation, or divorce, or the loss of a job, or lost friends or lost places we know and love. The desert’s never far from any of us.
But blessings are there, as the beautiful reading from Isaiah applied to John the Baptist for his feast says:
“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.”
Life holds its doubts, fears, uncertainty. But we don’t face limits alone. God is there. God is there.