Friday, March 11, 2011

The Diakonia of Saint Lawrence


"Lawrence hastens through the city streets,
And in three days he gathers up
The poor and the sick, a mighty throng
Of all in need of kindly alms.
He sought in every public square
The needy who were wont to be
Fed from the stores of Mother Church,
And he as steward knew them well".

The Acts of the Apostles reports that deacons were ordained for the daily diakonia, the distribution of food and alms to the poor, and this was evidently the case for Saint Lawrence of Rome. This verse by Prudentius celebrates the ministry of Saint Lawrence, and in this holy time of Lenten almsgiving, we do well to look to him as our patron and exemplar. Indeed, St Lawrence's popularity - and the many churches in Rome built in his honour, his legends, songs, and sacred art all testify to this - is due to his tremendous charity, and concern for the poor.

The fresco shown here is from the narthex wall of Pope Honorius III basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le mura in Rome. The fresco dates to the 13th-century (albeit much restored), and it is one of a series that narrates the life and works of St Lawrence, one of seven deacons of Rome, martyred in 258, and venerated as one of the patron saints of the city. Of note liturgically, is the vestments in which St Lawrence is depicted. As I mentioned in this post here, it is interesting to note the repeated pattern on the textile, the full-length and cut of the dalmatic, its jewelled trim and collar, and the deacons' cuffs. But of course, the painting itself, showing the deacon giving alms in the form of bread, which is depicted reminiscent of the Eucharistic Host, and in liturgical vestments, speaks of the intimate union of the Eucharist and the work of charity; liturgy and the Christian life. As Pope Benedict said in Sacramentum caritatis §88:

In the Eucharist Jesus also makes us witnesses of God's compassion towards all our brothers and sisters. The eucharistic mystery thus gives rise to a service of charity towards neighbour, which "consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, affecting even my feelings. Then I learn to look on this other person not simply with my eyes and my feelings, but from the perspective of Jesus Christ." In all those I meet, I recognize brothers or sisters for whom the Lord gave his life, loving them "to the end" (Jn 13:1). Our communities, when they celebrate the Eucharist, must become ever more conscious that the sacrifice of Christ is for all, and that the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become "bread that is broken" for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world. Keeping in mind the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we need to realize that Christ continues today to exhort his disciples to become personally engaged: "You yourselves, give them something to eat" (Mt 14:16). Each of us is truly called, together with Jesus, to be bread broken for the life of the world.

San Lorenzo fuori la muraIn fact, the patriarchal basilica of St Lawrence outside the Walls is an unusual building; an example of 13th-century church re-orientation even! A Constantinian basilica had been built on the site of St Lawrence the deacon's burial. In 579, Pope Pelagius II built a new church adjacent to the basilica (which no longer survives), but most of what one sees today is yet another church, built by Pope Honorius III in 1216. In a tremendous work of re-building, he demolished the apse of the 6th-century church, and completely re-orientated the new church so that the narthex of the 13th-century church stands on top of the former apse. He then converted the narthex of the 6th-century church into a lower-level crypt, where the shrine of Blessed Pius IX is now. In front of this he placed the tomb of St Lawrence, and raised the level of the new prebyterium or chancel by nine steps to create a 'confessio' under the repositioned Altar with its graceful baldachino.

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