“Shout with joy to the Lord, all the earth! Break into song, sing praise!” Ps 98:4
In the Roman sculpture section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the quiet gallery at the back, stand two sculptures from antiquity. One, “Trebonius Gallus”, is remarkable for its size, almost eight feet in height, and for being one of relatively few bronze Roman statues that survived in tact to the modern Era, without being discovered and melted down for an alternate use. The other hangs on the wall nearby, “Bust of the Emperor Constantine.” The two are a spiritual pair, of sorts, although I have never been able to confirm if the curator who placed them so close together, gazing on each other, fully understood this.
Trebonius Gallus ruled Rome briefly in the middle of the 3rd century AD, a violent era marked by frequent changes in leadership of the Empire, ongoing wars with the German tribes on the northern boundary, and frequent persecutions of the startup but rapidly growing Christian faith. Trebonius Gallus rose to the throne after murdering the previous Emperor on a battlefield, and died five years later at the hands of his own men. By all accounts, he was a typical product of the secular, godless society around him, pursuing the “Good life” while he could, “working hard and playing hard”, and, above all, trusting in no one but himself. With no Hope in a better eternity, he lived solely for the present, by his own wits and his own might. He took what he wanted, and left everyone else to fend for themselves. What is most interesting about the image, which in the artistic fashion of the time is a true portrait of the man, is not the imposing body or forceful pose, but rather the face. For a guy on top of the world, literally, he looks pretty worried. His brow is folded in deep thought and concern, his eyes dart about nervously, his lips are pursed, almost in fear. This is the face of worry. It’s the face I often have on when I forget about my Creator, when I believe “it’s all on me,” when I am alone facing a sea of troubles. It is not an attractive face. It’s gritty, even determined, and in that sense, “admirable”, but it is not attractive.
To Gallus’ left, on the adjacent wall, hangs the bust of Constantine. We don’t know for sure if the bust once stood atop a collossal statue of the Emperor, or if it was always meant to stand alone. No matter. Like the fully intact statue of Trebonius Gallus nearby, everything we need to know about the man is there, in the visage.
Constantine ruled the Empire three quarters of a century later. The Christian persecutions had come to a horrible climax under Diocletian as the fourth century began, and soon after Constantine rose to power. His mother, Saint Helen of the True Cross, was herself a Christian, and Constantine himself a believer, though he was only baptized on his deathbed. Importantly, Constantine, over the course of his long rule, ended the persecutions and legalized the practice of Christianity within the Empire. The young Faith flourished, and shortly after Constantine’s death, Christianity became the official religion of all of Rome.
Like Gallus before him, Constantine had his share of worries. Imperial rivals were always busy trying to split off all or parts of the sprawling Empire, and various insurrections needed to be put down. The German tribes were growing in power and military sophistication, and at times were literally “at the gates.” The Emperor was building an entirely new capital in the East, on the very edge of Europe, which come to be known as Constantinople and, centuries later, Istanbul. One would expect that a man with this much riding on his shoulders would make Trebonius Gallus look like the most calm self-composed guy in the world. And who could fault him?
Worry is not what we see in the face of Constantine. What we see instead is the face of hope, looking calmly heavenward– serene, composed, in the moment. This is the face of a man who trusts entirely in God, not himself. It is the face of a man “in the zone”, focused on the eternal, who knows that he is accompanied in the struggles of the day by his loving Creator, who has his back, whose beloved child he is.. This is the face of Joy in its deepest sense.
Next week, the passersby in SoHo will see two kinds of missionaries. Some, perhaps, may be out there trying to get the job done on their own, hoping they can power through the exercise by the sheer force of their will. On their visage they will wear the imposing face of Trebonius Gallus. They will attract few potential converts.
Others will bear the look of hope, hope in Jesus and in the eternal. They will be in the zone. They will be happy. They will persevere in a spirit of awesome gratitude for the love and mercy they themselves have experienced in a deeply personal way. They will have the look of “children of the Spirit.” They will give off that “Beautiful aroma.” They will have the face of Joy.
As we prepare this final week before Holy Week, let’s all get in the zone. Lean into Christ. Build on our personal relationship with Him for the trials ahead. Participate fully in the sacraments He offers us If we are in that place, in the Zone, the Face of Joy will rise up from us, spontaneously– without our even consciously summoning it. That’s the face we want. “Lord, give me whatever that guy Constantine is having.” Give me the face of joy.