13: The Catacombs

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

1st Thessalonians 4:13-14

Few places gives us an insight into the lives and the struggles of our persecuted brothers and sisters, in these early years of Christianity, as the catacombs of Rome.

This extensive network of underground passages were almost exclusively Christian burial sites. It would seem likely that owing to the fear of persecution Christians felt it more prudent to bury their dead out of sight, thus not arousing the attention of the authorities.

There are some reports that this network of tunnels and galleries were occasionally used for worship when opposition was fiercest. On one tragic occasion a group of worshippers were shut in to their death after they were discovered.

The prevailing view is, however, that during the opening centuries of Christianity the Romans did not prevent the Christians burying their dead in this way, as a general rule. Some of the pagans actually followed their example in burying their dead in underground also. This highlights the strength of Christianity within the capital of the empire, these old graves speak volumes about the Kingdom Christ was building.

What is especially instructive about these underground cemeteries, is the way in which they speak to us about early Christian faith. Symbolism was clearly important with the most popular being being the shepherd, the fish and the vine. The epitaphs on the graves are the most illuminating as they reveal a people who buried their dead being comforted by the grace of God, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection; of which the following are a sample:

A selection of epitaphs as documents in “History Of The Christian Church” (The Complete Eight Volumes In One) by Philip Schaff

“To dear Cyriacus, sweetest son. Mayest thou live in the Holy Spirit”.

“To my good and sweetest husband Castorinus, who lived 61 years, 5 months and 10 days; well-deserving. His wife made this. Live in God!”

“Victorina in peace and in Christ.

With tears, sympathy, pleasant memories and assured hope they buried their loved ones in Christ. It has been commented that these epitaphs were in total contrast to the heathen tombstones, which rarely expressed belief in immortality. It is apparent that Christianity brought new hope to a dark world.

“Forever with the Lord!"
Amen, so let it be!
Life from the dead is in that word,
'Tis immortality.”

James Montgomery

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