After spending some time for reflection at the prison, I got back on the metro at he coliseum (been there before and didn’t stop) and changed lines at Termini and went quite a way south to get as close on the metro as I could to the catacombs. That was a mistake. The metro doesn’t get very close!
I walked a very long way indeed and in my condition that was far too far. Finally I waited for a bus that seemed to be going in the right direction. It was, but the bus stopped quite a ways beyond where I wanted to get off! Finally I arrived on foot at the catacombs, but had to wait an hour because the place was closed for siesta.
When it was time for our group to go below with an English speaking guide, we walked perhaps a couple hundred yards of the catacombs but there are over 19 kilometers of tunnels and three or 4 stories of catacombs in places. Also, this is one of many catacomb systems. Christians were buried here because it was inexpensive and safe to be buried here. Roman soldiers were superstitious and wouldn’t enter the catacombs. It is probably not true that Christians hid underground except during severe persecution. Generally the catacombs were places to honor the dead and remember together as the people of God the resurrection to come. Today it is a place to consider the fragility of this life against the certainty of the world to come. It is an opportunity to reorient ourselves to the foundations of our faith.
The aspect that most moved my heart was the use of Christian symbols throughout the catacombs. The early Christians lived in a pagan and hostile society. During Nero’s persecution (64 A.D.), following Jesus was considered “a strange and illegal superstition”. Christians were mistrusted and excluded, they were suspected and accused of the worst crimes. They were persecuted, imprisoned, sentenced to exile or condemned to death. Unable to profess their faith openly, the Christians made use of symbols, which they placed on the walls of the catacombs and carved on the marble-slabs which sealed the tomb recesses.
These symbols were a visible reminder of their faith. A “symbol” used this way is a sign or figure, which presents an idea or a spiritual reality. The main symbols I saw are the Good Shepherd, the “Orante”, the monogram of Christ, and the fish.
The Good Shepherd with a lamb around his shoulders represents Christ and the soul which He has saved. John 10 says it all.This symbol is often found painted in the frescoes on the catacomb walls, carved in the reliefs of the sarcophagi, presented in the statues, and engraved on the tombs themselves.
The “orante”: this is a praying figure with open arms symbolizing the soul which lives on in divine peace.
The Greek monogram of Christ is formed by interlacing two letters of the Greek alphabet: X (chi) and P (ro), which are the first two letters of the Greek word “Christòs” or Christ. When this monogram was placed on a tombstone, it meant a Christian was buried there.
The fish. In Greek the letters are IXTHYS (ichtùs). Placed vertically, the letters of this word form an acrostic: Iesùs Christòs Theòu Uiòs Sotèr: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. The fish is a widespread symbol of Christ, a motto and a compendium of the Christian faith.
Some other symbols I saw are the dove, the Alpha and the Omega, the anchor, etc. The dove holding an olive branch symbolizes the soul that reaches divine peace, “that you may be with Me where I am.” (John 14) The Alpha and the Omega are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. They signify that Christ is the beginning and the end of all things. The anchor is the symbol of salvation and of the soul which has peacefully reached the port of eternity. Our anchor holds within the veil.
The martyrs’ tombs, the cubicles and also the arcosoliums may be decorated with pictures painted in a fresco. The frescoes represent biblical scenes of the Old and the New Testament, some of them with a precise symbolic meaning. I especially liked the use of the Jonah story to speak to the strong call of God on our lives, His great mercy, and his power to deliver from death.
Today in our funerals we usually celebrate the loved one who died with pictures and stories. There may be a footprints poem or countryside scene on the bulletin. But how few of our funeral images really depict our faith! The funeral homes in our culture sanitize and bleach out grim death. Some caskets and grave stones I’ve seen today are decorated with fishing rods, sports teams, birds or the person’s monogram or flowers. Where are the symbols of our faith like these Christians were proud to display? Have we so watered down our identity with Christ that we can’t think of any significant ways to depict our true faith, hope, and love at death?