When I was eleven years old I remember descending into the underground catacombs just outside of Rome, Italy. All along the walls of that subterranean labyrinth were niches carved into the rock, and inside each one were scores of skeletons – skulls and bones.
Loving all the cheesy horror movies that came out in the late 1950s and 60s, I thought this was about the coolest thing I had ever seen! I knew that we were visiting an ancient burial site for early Christians, so I was very reverent… but it was really cool!
Flash forward to about three weeks ago when I was able to, once again, descend into the depths of this 2000 year old underground cemetery. But this time there were NO skeletons. I asked our leader what happened to them, and he explained that because so many people touch them or steal them, they were removed about 40 or 50 ago. I told him that must have been just after my first visit, and I exclaimed, “Don’t look at me! I didn’t take any old bones!”
Though there were no bones to see on this trip, I was still amazed at how many hallways there were, how many twists and turns, how many levels deep it was, and how expansive the entire site was. They said that in the various early Christian catacombs around Rome that over 100,000 skeletons had been discovered.
So WHY did the early Christians bury their dead in these catacombs? Two reasons: first, they didn’t want the bodies of their loved ones desecrated by the Romans, who had expelled them from Rome in the first century A.D. And second, they believed that for a body to be resurrected at the second coming of Christ, the body had to be kept as intact as possible, not cremated as was the Roman custom.
This begs the question, WHAT do we know about HOW the early Christians regarded death and going to be with Jesus in heaven? We certainly have the Bible to tell us what’s going to happen, and we can tell each other about it, hear it from a preacher, or even Google it. But HOW did the FIRST CHRISTIANS process the HOPE OF ETERNITY that we share in today? HOW did they convey to each other what had been preached by the APOSTLES of JESUS only a few short years before? For them, this was current events or very close to it!
Though the bones in the catacombs have been cleared out, what remains is a variety of symbols carved into the rock, so that we CAN KNOW exactly what they believed. These are symbols that reflect the Biblical HOPE of ETERNAL LIFE.
ANCHOR: the anchor symbol has a vertical shaft with a crossbeam at the top, and a circle on top of that, along with the curved holding pins at the bottom. It looks like a person on a cross and the ancient Christians used this symbol as a reminder that Jesus Christ is our Anchor. He is our hope and salvation for eternal life. (Hebrews 19:9, “This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain into God’s inner sanctuary.”)
FISH: Jesus sends us out to be fishers of people, but we are also the fish that Jesus has caught. (Matthew 4:19, “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”) The Greek letters that spell out the word FISH = IΧΘΥΣ, also stands for Jesus(I) Christ(Χ), Son(Θ) of God(Υ), Savior(Σ).
DOVES: the doves represent the resurrection of the SOUL ascending to HEAVEN, and Divine Peace and Happiness.
CHI RHO: the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P) when superimposed on top of each other resemble outspread arms and legs with a head between the two arms. This was the earliest version of the CROSS that we wear today, today’s cross not becoming a symbol of our faith until the 5th century A.D.
PERSON WITH UPRAISED ARMS: Finally the Soul is at Rest as we enjoy the BLISS OF HEAVEN as we are finally at peace.
Standing in that dark and dank, earthen maze made me reflect on what kind of symbolism resonates with me about my faith in Jesus. Is it a cross? Maybe a fish sticker on my car?
Then it hit me… I/WE ARE SUPPOSED TO BE THE SYMBOLS OF OUR FAITH! When people look at me, do they see a reflection of Jesus? Am I a timeless reflection of the GLORY OF GOD? Are WE these reflections? Do we remember that WE ARE the LIVING STONES of the Temple of the Living God with Christ as the Cornerstone?
Sometimes we get a chance to talk to others about the Hope of Jesus. But if we don’t get that chance, do people get A THOUSAND WORDS about JESUS just by looking at us, as we are Symbols of Christ?
If that’s not the case, then let us all join in to help encourage each other to be worthy reflections, worthy SYMBOLS of God’s Glory in Christ Jesus.
God bless you all, and we hope to see you Sunday!
— Pastor David McCall