What Did the Early Christians See?


One of my favorite places to visit in Rome are the Catacombs of St. Callixtus. So you are probably thinking – what? She is in Rome, the eternal city with Piazzas, art and cuisine and she is excited about a Christian burial place? Wait! They represent a lot more than just a burial site. These Catacombs are located on the Appian Way in Rome, with nearly 12 miles of underground burial places used by the early Christians in the second century.

Named after a St. Callistux, a deacon who was appointed by Pope Zephyrinus to be the administrator of the cemetery, so it became the official cemetery of the Church of Rome. One of the underground areas is called “the little Vatican” because nine Popes were buried there along with several dignitaries of the early Church in Rome.

The visit is fascinating! Each time I visit these Catacombs, I am reminded of the deep love and hope the early Christians had in the Christian Faith and Church.

Our guide introduces the place, explaining what we will see – burial places and the symbols of the early Church in Frescoes from the 2nd and 3rd centuries. The early Christians, we were told, used these symbols in sharing their testimony of faith. They would see these images as signs of hope and encouragement.

The symbols found in St. Callixtus Catacombs include:
The Good Shepherd with a lamb around his shoulders representing Christ and the soul which He has saved.
The “orante” figure with open arms symbolizing the soul that lives in divine peace.

The monogram of Christ, 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 Ichtùs Fish (in Greek one says IXTHYS. Placed vertically, the letters of this word form an acrostic: Iesùs Christòs Theòu Uiòs Sotèr – Greek for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Acrostic is a Greek-derived word that means the first letter of every line or paragraph. The fish is a widespread symbol of Christ, a motto and a compendium of the Christian faith.
The dove holding an olive branch symbolizes the soul that reached divine peace.
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.

These were their symbols reminding them of the Christian Faith. Walking down 25-30 steps into a dimly lit narrow tunnel, the ground uneven – just think, we are walking on the original ground! There are thousands of burial places (some small due to the large infant mortality at that time), ancient oil lamps, the frescoes, large open crypts and small cubicles with more frescoes.

As our guide was finishing his explanation and leading us to stairs to exit, we asked to remain in one of the cubicles where one of the Popes was buried to pray. It was near the exit, so we wouldn’t get lost!.

The early Christians didn’t have the Bible, nor a Catechism of the Catholic Church, nor a Rosary, nor a Crucifix! After all, the Crucifix was scandalous because Romans were still crucifying Christians and criminals during that time.

What did they have? They had the “faith stories” of Christians, including those who were martyred and encouraged others to remain steadfast. They heard Bishops proclaim the Truths of the faith, encouraging them to have hope, and as a result, they became witnesses of their faith in Jesus Christ and his, Gospel even at the cost of personal sacrifice.

They saw how many Christians died for their faith in Christ. For me, the faith and hope of the early Christians encourages me to remain secure in what I believe as a Catholic Christian. I am also reminded of the importance to share my faith story with others, so they, too can be encouraged.

Faith has to be shared in order to be lived. When was the last time you shared your faith?

Interested in an outline on sharing your faith story? Contact me at dtmjfox@pilgrimcenterofhope.org for the ABC’s of telling your faith story.

About Mary Jane Fox

Mary Jane Fox is the co-founder of The Pilgrim Center of Hope. The Pilgrim Log is the blog of the Pilgrim Center of Hope, a Catholic evangelization ministry, providing weekly spiritual reflections to help you journey toward a deeper relationship with Christ. Learn more about the Pilgrim Center of Hope by visiting www.pilgrimcenterofhope.org.

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