Friday, June 13, 2014

The Catacombs

 In the   first  400 years or so following the ressurection of Jesus Christ there  existed a community of  believers in the city of Rome that lived and died  under  unique circumstances.  Roman society and culture was a culture where every aspect of life was given over to a pantheon of false gods.  If you were a Christian living in Rome at these times,  at every turn you were faced with  the choice of  giving some sort of  acknowledgment to these  man-made deities or face ridicule,  scorn and persecution.  Whether it was the  public prayers  offered up at virtually every public event, or the  oaths to  gods   compelled  during  military service, or the paganism of your neighbors, a subtle oppression existed everywhere.  To abstain or speak up might cost you  your job, or your social standing.  To proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ  might mean the  severing of family ties or physical hardship.
  On  top of that, they endured  the occasional  period of state persecution in which various emperors would pledge to wipe them out. Emperor worship and overall state worship was very  much a  part of Roman life , and the early Christian  community made it clear that they would  pray for the king, but not to the king. Christians were  declared enemies of the state and their practices were said to be injurious to the homogeneity of Roman society. Christianity was proclaimed "strange and unlawful" in AD 35 by the Senate.  It was called "deadly" and "detestable"  by Tacitus, "wicked and unbridled" by Plinius, "new and harmful" by Svetonius and "mysterious and opposed to light" by Octavius.  Diocletian even erected a column  proclaiming his  victory over the Christians in his realm. The properties of followers would be  seized, and their houses burned to the ground with full governmental approval. They were set on fire,  or fed to lions for public sport. To stand up for Jesus in  Rome  meant at least discomfort, and possibly martyrdom before a  cheering crowd of bloodthirsty pagans. The  gospel of Jesus Christ  thrived under these conditions, and  one of the greatest monuments to the persecuted church exists in  the form of a series of winding underground  caves, tunnels,  and rooms beneath the city.   These catacombs were referred to by Charles Maitland as “..a vast necropolis, rich in the bones of saints and martyrs; a stupendous  testimony to the truth of Christian history, and  consequently, of Christianity itself; a faithful record of the trials of the persecuted Church….”   Author Selina Bundy  referred to  the catacombs as the "infant church in it's underground cradle".  For  over 400 years, the  Christians of Rome, met, worshiped, and were buried out of  the sight of their oppressors in this underground city.
  There is some speculation as to how this  underground city even came to be. In early Rome, the bodies of prominent people were burned on elaborate funeral pyres, and one theory is that the early Christians began burying their  dead underground to separate themselves from this practice.
 Other researchers say that the tunnels weren’t dug by the Christians, just occupied by them after the rock and sand were removed to build  houses.   The  sandy volcanic  material  known as tufa was mined from the  Roman countryside and used in cement.  It has been suggested by some  chroniclers that  Roman soldiers who who were known converts to Christianity were made to labor in the excavation of this  building material.  This provided the empire with cheap labor and also  put the soldiers in the position of digging out the  future resting place of other Christians. Either way, the  tunnels and chambers and graves stretch out under the  ancient city in all directions for  roughly 15 miles.  Some join up to the family crypts of believers, and  some have entrances that existed under people's houses.  

 In some places, the  tunnels go down several levels, hand carved through rock , with the graves themselves being chiseled out of hard rock and then  sealed up with plaster.
   When one of their own was killed, the Christians would recover the body and take it beneath the city for burial. But it wasn't just a  graveyard, it was place to flee the  sporadic persecutions of the Roman government. Found inside the catacombs are chapels carved from the rock, altars,  benches, chairs and  fountains that supplied water to those hiding there. This was such a well-known fact that   several pagan Roman emperors ( Vallerian, Gallenius, Maximus) forbid entry into the underground city, and would arrest those found at the entrances.   Despite their best efforts though, the Roman state was never able to plug all the holes or block all the entrances, and the  underground community grew and grew, with a  population of approximately 40,000 dead, although an exact number is impossible  due to  vandalism and grave-robbing.

  The graves themselves offer remarkable insight in to  this community.  The mourners would  write epitaphs for their departed on the cave walls, or in the wet plaster, and we often see a very human side of these dear saints. We read of their families, of their faith, and of their murders.

translated 'The Tomb of Philemon'



Sometimes persecutions were so severe, and    internment so hasty, that what results is a sort of mass grave.



  Equally compelling is the artwork that adorns  the walls of the catacombs.  Hand-painted and personal, it not only gives us  a picture into the  heart of the church, but it also  documents a shift in the  mindset of believers from the period immediately after the Resurrection to the  slow rise of what would eventually become the Roman Catholic Church.  In these paintings you can see a slwo  drift away from  Biblical Christianity to paganism and then the very beginnings of Catholicism.The early artwork  highlights the biblical focus of the church, with  Old Testament Biblical scenes being represented, such as Noah's ark as well as New Testament themes such as the Good Shepherd.

Noah's Ark

Jonah and the Whale

The Three Hebrews from the Book of Daniel

The Good Shepherd

   Unfortunately as time went on , apostasy began to creep in, and the catacombs become adorned with  vague 'Christian' symbology. Decorating  graves with symbols as opposed to words was a well known pagan custom.

The 'Christian' fish




 By the time the  catacombs fell into disuse by the close of the  4th century,  the Catholic elevation of Mary had already begun, and her steady rise in the minds of  believers   shows itself in  the  catacomb paintings.  Admiration of martyrs in the  first century became, sadly, worship of martyrs  by the 4th century.


   Due to a multitude of factors, including the  fall of Rome and  it's invasion by foreign armies, the catacombs were  lost to history for almost a thousand years.  The faithful in Jesus slept  beneath the city while  on the surface upheavals and invasions were happening.  The catacombs were rediscovered in the 1500's and were  excavated  off and on for the  next  several hundred years.
 Unfortunately, at the time of their rediscovery the  Roman Catholic church was at a  peak of great power, and  claimed the catacombs for themselves. What remains today is still under Vatican control. They rewrote the history, claiming the catacombs as 'proof' that the Church of Rome was the   one great true church.  They used the catacombs to establish a legitimacy that they could trace back to the  time of Christ, although a careful student of history will note the difference between the church of the catacombs and the  Vatican  monstrosity.
  Vatican thugs plundered the  catacombs.Graves were opened, and  the bones removed to be treated as relics and worshiped. Artifacts were stolen, and sold to the highest bidder.   Complete fabrications  and histories were drummed up by  Vatican propagandists.  Parishes  paid large sums to  acquire a  finger bone or leg bone from the catacombs. They would then proceed to charge  money for pilgrims  to see it or  kiss it. 

a plundered tomb
  But it didn't stop there.  For the right price, you could do much better than  just a finger bone; you could get yourself a mummified believer or even a whole corpse, grotesquely arrayed for veneration and  trotted across the countryside.   Special indulgences and  privileges were extended to those who would show the remains 'proper respect'. They were set on thrones and  bedecked with jewels.  Parishes across Europe clamored to  either get their hands on such a relic or arrange for one to tour through their district.

 The movement of a dead saint from place to place would draw a crowd, and   drawing a crowd was good for business. Small parishes couldn't always afford the real relics and so a  huge  underground black market developed for forgeries. This led to further pillaging of the graves and grave robbing to feed the demand.  It wasn't that hard to  visit your local graveyard and claim the bones you dug up belonged to  John the Baptist or some other famous name in  Christianity.  This led to by some estimates, hundreds of parts of the same saint existing simultaneously all over Europe, a confusion that continues to this day.
  What also continues to this day is that  Rome  claims the exclusive right to interpret the history of the catacombs in Rome, and the handful of similar structures that have been discovered in other parts of Europe.  The entrances  to the catacombs are dominated by popish structures, and adorned with all manner of relics, such as  the rock at San Sebastiano which purports to contain the footprints of Jesus Christ. With their well-established morbidity, and flair for the  absurd,what should be a celebration of being steadfast and faithful unto death, has become a pageantry of death and   whitewashed history.
Most of this plundered grave material  lingers on in our  modern world in the Gallery of the Vatican.

 But before we  get too busy lamenting that this  crucial piece of church history has stayed for so long in  the hands of the  church's greatest enemy, consider the words of Selinda Bundy who wrote "In Rome, destined to act so great, so awful a part in that church's future history, a cradle for those whom the Lord out of the world was provided, even beneath the  ground over which their opponents trod in pride an power; and a receptacle afforded for the ashes of the martyrs who had been faithful unto death, and who, with others more peacefully fallen asleep in Jesus left their tombs as a testimony to ages and ages yet to come, of the truth of that religion for which they  suffered, bled and died"



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