Any fleet-footed tour of Rome would be incomplete without some laps of Circus Maximus. The first time I travelled to Rome, it was one of my first stops. Earlier this month, I managed to run make detours run it twice. I had a great plan after my first run. I thought: ‘I’ll take Molly for a run around Circus Maximus. After one lap I’ll tell her why it’s such a big deal. Then we’ll run a second lap’. I floated the idea but after twelve kilometres of walking the previous day her enthusiasm was something south of zero.
In its day, Circus Maximus would have made the Colosseum look like a school for ants. With an elaborate pagan genesis, Circus Maximus was the site for festivals, celebrations and chariot racing. Oh, and it was also the prime venue for the empire’s long distance foot races.
It was grand and magnificent. And vast. Pliny the Elder estimated the seated capacity of the venue at 250,000. It was part of Rome’s glory. A tribute to the might of the empire. The chequered history of the venue includes a section of the stadium collapsing and killing 13,000 Romans in the first century AD, and 500,000 attending a Genesis concert in the open space in 2007. It’s uncertain how many were damaged that evening.
To see Circus Maximus now is a bit of a disappointment. To be blunt, the limestone bush track out the back of Kensington is a surface on which to run than the spongy soft stones of the circus these days. But that’s the present, not the past and I ran Circus Maximus to revisit the past, not live its present. It’s the (imagined) memory of what it once was that took me there, not the glory of its present.
As I ran past (or on) the sites of ancient Rome, one ruin followed another. Things once glorious, now lay in some stage of ruins. Rarely have any restoration efforts been undertaken for reasons other than public safety and preservation. Why would there be? The ruins hint at their former glory. To restore would be to render them inauthentic – an artist’s impression at best.
Cleverly, I left my Garmin in a Sicilian hotel, and for my Roman runs, I had Fiona’s iPhone for company. No Apple Music, just one album as a soundtrack. The album: Glorious Ruins by Hillsong.
I’ll walk through the fire with my head lifted high
And my spirit revived in Your story
And I’ll look to the cross as my failure is lost
In the light of Your glorious grace
Let the ruins come to life in the beauty of Your Name
Rising up from the ashes, God forever You reign
As I ran past ruins I was reminded again and again: they are a reminder of something that was, not something that stands.
We’re prone to do the same with our past. Sometimes it was glorious; often it is a glorious memory that has been built from something that was, if we’re honest, a little ordinary. Our romance and embellishment of our past, though, sometimes yields a desire to recreate and rebuild what is ruined.
This isn’t the intent of God in us through the work of Jesus. The Apostle Paul proclaims that ‘we are a new creation, the old has passed away, the new has come’. The problem is, if we don’t look to the new thing that God is wanting to do in us, we can be consumed by attempts to resurrect ruins. The prophet Isaiah doesn’t miss this.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
No, we often don’t see it. What we see is what we lost – what we wish we still had. What we wish we could rebuild to be exactly as it was before. Or, more poignantly, what we romantically remember that we had before. It’s not that He necessarily wants to demolish all our buildings, but He wants to bring a different kind of good.
When the world caves in
Still my hope will cling to Your promise
Where my courage ends
Let my heart find strength in Your presence
Jesus steps down into our mess to become ruined glory for us. Not to resurrect a memory, but to breathe new life and a revived spirit by his grace. He doesn’t want us to ignore or deny the ruins of our past – they have redemptive purposes in us – but he doesn’t want us to glory in them either. He wants to do something altogether new and more glorious. From the ashes of our ruins, He wants to raise us up in Him.
Curiously, He can only get to work in us when we acknowledge our ruins. If we insist on running around Circus Maximus thinking ‘how glorious is this?’, there’s little we’ve given to Him to breathe life into. But when our weakness, strength and failure are brought to His cross, we can revel in the temple that the Holy Spirit is building in us. A story that testifies to His grace.
All this causes Paul to write:
But (Jesus) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
It’s not because Paul wants to revel in his weakness, but he’s had a revelation that in bringing that weakness to the cross and refusing to hide our ruins, Jesus gets to do His best work in us.
Let the ruins come to life.