The Witness of the Catacombs

by J. Grant Swank, Jr.

The Witness of

One of my favorite pastimes in Maine's Lakes Region is to wander about cemeteries. That may sound strange to some; but I have a hunch it is a yen of not a few out there.

There are all sorts of times and persons one comes upon when scouting about the graves. Such revealing statements and unique figurines are carved into stone-not to mention the worn dates of previous centuries.

But the most gripping gravesites I have ever come upon were the catacombs beneath Rome. There the time frame of hundreds of hundreds of years past closed in upon us and fueled our fancies.

Above, on the Appian Way, all was sunshine, but beneath Rome's earth, there was nothing but curves and shadows, winding narrow walkways, for miles upon miles.

What had those Christians been like? What had they eaten just before they died? Who made up their families? Who tucked their bones into these alcoves? What mournful prayers had been offered on their behalf?

Our tour guide pointed out the symbols, particularly that of the "fish"-a code symbol for "Christian," from the Greek word for fish, ichthys. Starting in the second century, those letters formed an acronym of the phrase ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.'" With that, we gawked at the ancient scratchings on damp gravestones.

Wherever a Christian saw that symbol, he would have known that another believer had passed by-especially when passing by on his way to see Jesus.

To one side and then the other, I took in the marble slabs pressed into catacomb walls. So this was the community of the ancient dead. But more, we were walking among the earthly remains of those still very much alive in heaven. It was awesome. Time for goosebumps, for sure.

On Domitilla's third century tomb was inscribed: "May thy spirit be in refreshment." How creatively courageous in faith! Such simplicity testifying to renewing reward on "the other side."

Callistos, having left this sphere in the second century, had etched into his catacomb: "...servant of God..." "I have served thee, O Lord. I will give thanks to Thy name." Some friend wrote further: "He gave up his soul to God" at age 33 years and 6 months. Thanksgiving was Callistos' legacy. Now he was basking in an everlasting gratitude free of pain and sin.

"Sweet Simplicius, live in eternity" was proclaimed from the catacomb of a second century Christian. No doubt, those few words were the deceased's fervent beckoning call to another still living.

Today when I traipse about the gravesites-and there are many-within a few miles of my home, I note similar believing testimonies. They speak of faith, of Jesus, of heaven, and overcoming life's trials, perseverance, prayer, angels awaiting, and the temporary sojourn of this span.

It may sound odd, but such clear witness is a grand counter to much of the morning headlines. Is not all this, then, an imperative spiritual reminder to present-tense believers?

From the first century to this moment, believers must shout to a selfish, wayward globe that there is more to all this than this. There is that which is beyond us-the invisible, the everlasting. Therefore, the wise prepare not only for tomorrow's breakfast but more importantly for the eternal feast in the Savior's banqueting hall.

"Sweet Simplicius, live in eternity. . ."

J. Grant Swank, Jr., pastors New Hope Church in Windham, Maine