Today’s saint, Peter Chrysologus, was bishop of Ravenna in the fifth century.
Ravenna is a city full of beautiful churches, adorned with shining mosaics. An imperial city the churches are often large and imposing, with shining mosaics that depicted an imperial Christ.
The three most impressive churches were built in the sixth century. San Vitale even has the emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora depicted, bearing a paten and a chalice. They are both crowned with a nimbus – a symbol, as one guidebook put it, of the divine origin of their power.
There is one little church, near San Vitale, the mausoleum of Galla Placida, originally dedicated to Saint Lawrence, that was built between 425 and 430. The ceiling is star-studded with a cross in the center. On one wall there is a beautiful mosaic of a beardless Christ, the Good Shepherd, seated among the sheep.
I wonder if this image of Jesus is one that inspired St. Peter Chrysologus.
In the midst of this imperial city Saint Peter was known for his preaching. There is one touching sermon on the Incarnation, which is used in Benedictine Daily Prayer, that I think provides a startling counterpoint to the grandeur of the imperial version of Christianity and seems more attuned to this image of the Good Shepherd, that he may have gazed on.
Imagine you are a simple worker – or even a slave – in Ravenna. You go to Mass and hear the bishop proclaim:
“O human kind, why do you think so little of yourself when God thinks so highly of you? Why dishonor yourself when God so honors you? Why be so concerned with the stuff from which you are made? All visible creation is your home….
“More than this, the Creator made you his image and earthly representative. Then when he had made in you he took to himself and decided to make himself in human form. Humankind is no longer simply the Creator’s image but his very self.”
This is a message that speaks to my heart – the love of God gives us dignity.
It is also the message that so many of the people I work with in Honduras need to hear.
You have a dignity. God became flesh like you. God’s birth is, as St. Peter Chrysologus said in the same sermon, “a mystery of God’s devotion to us and of the renewal of humanity.”
In a world that despises the poor, in a society that looks down upon them, in a culture where the poor have taken on themselves a mindset of their powerlessness and worthlessness, this is the message that needs to be heard.
And it is also the message that those of us who have power and things that make us assume we are worthy need to hear so that we may see the dignity of the poor.
Our dignity comes from God – not from what we do or have, but from who we are, made on God’s image, and sisters and brothers, one in flesh, of the incarnate Word of God.