Easter at the Catacombs: A Portal in Time

In spring of 1968, while studying theology in Rome, I received an unusual request. The community of priests and brothers that served the Catacomb of St. Callistus, needed an extra English-language tour-guide to help them deal with the Holy Week crowds, and inquired if I might be willing to help. Without a second thought I accepted.

There was a certain sameness to the work in which I found myself engaged. Each day visitors arrived in large tour busses and were walked through the underground chambers on half hour schedules. The Cemetery of St. Callistus, the oldest of the Roman catacombs, dates to 202 AD when the Christian community acquired a piece of property near the Appian Way and began excavating burial corridors in the soft volcanic rock averaging 40 feet below ground. All of these things I patiently explained to the tourists. They listened impassively, occasionally glancing at their watches.

catacombs

For me the catacomb was a portal to another time, the period between 200 and 300 when the Christian community in Rome was relatively small and persecutions still toke place. Although the famous crypt containing the bodies of five early popes is at St. Callistus, most of those buried there were from the poorer classes. Bodies of the dead were wrapped in shrouds and then sealed into the earth with stone slabs and flat roofing tiles At times, the crudely inscribed travertine or marble slabs were reused stones that bore pagan inscriptions on their reverse side. The burial niches were hand-cut into the corridor sides and measured to the body, showing that most of the Christians were barely over five feet tall. There are also many small niches that once contained the remains of children and infants.

Many of them were Greek-speaking immigrants to Rome. The few inscriptions that remain, often containing misspelled words, were touchingly simple. “Apuleia Chrysopolis who lived seven years, two months. Her parents made this stone for their dearest daughter.” Scratched on the left side of the inscription was a palm tree of victory and on the right a good shepherd carrying a lamb across his shoulders.  Another reads: “Baccis, sweet soul, in the peace of the Lord. She lived 15 years, 75 days…Her father [made this] for his sweet daughter.” Much of their religious life was played out in darkness: “We assemble before daybreak and take the Eucharist,” a third century Christian writer explained.”

The early Christians relied heavily upon symbols to express their faith. In catacomb art the good shepherd frequently appeared. One saw the peacock, a bird reputed to have incorruptible flesh and a symbol of eternity. Water imagery was common like the dolphin, considered a guide fish to help vessels complete their journey. The anchor was often depicted, a symbol of the firm hope of the Christian community in an afterlife. One series of crude frescoes show Jonah, tossed into the belly of a large dolphin, and then shown reposing in a garden, the Greek word for which is “paradise.”

Holy Thursday and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper came for me at the end of long day of giving tours. During the long ceremony, I drifted toward the margins of consciousness as imagery of palm branches, loaves, and wine focused and faded into a spectral moment as I stood amidst flickering oil lamps with Apuleia and Baccis partaking of the sacred meal.

Good Friday brought more big busses flowing up the Via Appia into the cypress-lined parking lot. That evening, the religious community celebrated the crucifixion and death of Christ.

The earliest Christians shunned use of the image of the cross because of its negative connotations. Death on the cross was reserved for the lowest class of criminals. But it was not far from their minds. They saw the Eucharistic bread and wine as intimately connected with Christ’s bloody death. “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death and confess his resurrection,” an ancient prayer proclaimed.

The early believers also avoided depicting the face of Jesus. Instead Christ was represented by the symbol of the fish set out in baskets or on banquet tables. The Greek word for fish (“icthus”) served as an acrostic in which each letter stood for the words Jesus the Christ, Savior, and Son of God. If the vocabulary seemed simple, the underlying theology was profound. “Eat, drink, taking the fish with both hands,” exhorted a Christian writer of the third century.

At last the week neared its end. On the day of Holy Saturday the grounds of the catacomb swarmed with visitors taking in the in the sights before returning to the city for the great ceremonies at St Peter’s Basilica. That evening, the religious community blessed the new fire marking, in the words of the early Church,  “the day of Christ’s resurrection… the day in which God brought the world out of darkness.” As the flame was brought into the darkened chapel, I was struck by the fact that the Christians who buried their dead nearly eighteen hundred years earlier in the blackness of St. Callistus, identified themselves in the breaking of the bread. With us, they shared the same light of Easter morning, and with them we would one day be reunited in the same garden of the risen Christ.