Somewhere back in the 1800’s a crew was digging under the city of Rome, and deep in the catacombs they discovered a box with the bones of a young woman about whom we know nothing and, perhaps, everything.
Her remains now lie in the new cathedral of Los Angeles, where I went for a visit last week. It’s called the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels and it’s only been open since 2002 but it was built to last five hundred years. I was struck by so many remarkable things that I saw there. First, although it’s a Catholic Church, everything about it has been designed to make it the city’s cathedral, a place for people of many denominations to come together and worship. It’s architecture has been the center of some controversy; I like it. It’s old and new and simple and grand all at the same time. The sculpture of Mary above the main entrance, by the artist Robert Grahame, says it all. He gave her the eyes of one race, the nose of another, the lips of a third. She stands humbly and yet with great power, a long braid down her back, with her arms open in short sleeves, almost as if they’re rolled up and ready to go to work to bring everyone together in one place if only for a moment.
But it’s the image of another young woman there that I can’t get out of my mind. I didn’t actually see her. But I imagined her as I stood at the tomb of that young woman from the catacombs of Rome. St. Vibiana. When her remains were discovered over a hundred years ago, there was nothing on the box to identify her except a name: Vibiana, and a design, a sign actually, a half sun with rays emanating from it. A sign that those digging there recognized as a message from the early Christians: this person was killed because she believed in Jesus.
Vibiana’s death has been placed somewhere near 300 A.D. and they estimate her age to be around fifteen. Since then, all sorts of stories about her have been told; hopeful, encouraging stories, but stories nevertheless. All anyone really knows is that she lived and she died for Jesus. And that’s all I need to know about her.
We are so often assaulted these days by people who mock our faith in a loving and forgiving God. And sometimes the things they say, the facts they twist with sarcasm and wit and bullying, can challenge our faith and tempt us to doubt. But whatever the pundits say on TV is nothing, I imagine, to the mockery and abuse Vibiana must have faced in the cruel and brutal times of Roman persecution. How strong would we be if the words that late night critics threw at us were actually knives or bullets? Well, so far, we are still free to worship God as we choose in this country. And may we never take that freedom for granted.
As I said, the Cathedral was designed to last 500 years. And I hope it does. Because who knows who will stand at the tomb of Vibiana someday and draw courage from the life and the death of one, single girl.