Under the city of Rome lies a vast system of catacombs. The ancient Romans built these catacombs because they simply didn’t like death—they feared it and didn’t want to think about it. They wanted to push death out onto the margins, even out of sight, so they buried their dead underground.
These catacombs play an interesting role in the history of Christianity. In the first few centuries after Christ, Christianity was at odds with the empire and Christians were marginalized, ostracized, and persecuted. Despite the opposition they faced, they found that they could worship freely in the catacombs. The Romans wouldn’t go down there but would send slaves to dig out the catacombs and bury their dead. So, the Christians were relatively free to worship there. They even sometimes built seats into the walls of these catacombs and also left behind paintings on the walls.
Another testimony to the practice of worshiping in the catacombs is the wonderful early Christian hymn called “O Gladsome Light”:
O gladsome light, O grace
Of God the Father’s face,
The eternal splendor wearing;
Celestial, holy, blest,
Our Savior Jesus Christ,
Joyful in thine appearing.
This early Christian hymn goes on to say that “the day falls quiet and we see the evening light.” And they pour out their hymn to Christ. Can you see it in your mind? The Christians are gathering; they have the light in the catacombs; and they gather around the light to worship together and to sing their hymns of praise.
After Christianity was legalized and as it spread through the empire, catacombs became not only a place where Christians could meet; they also became the place were Christians would bury their dead. We can learn about the lives of early Christians from the epitaphs that were left at a number of these catacombs. One of them simply says, “Here lies Quintilian, a man of God, a firm believer in the trinity, who loved chastity and rejected the allurements of the world.”
Another epitaph belongs to someone named Domitilla. It says, “Who believed in Jesus Christ, together with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Many of these early catacomb epitaphs reference Christians’ belief in the Trinity. It shows how important that doctrine was to the early church.
Another of these epitaphs reads, “Here I rest, free from all anxiety, what I awaited has happened, when the coming of Christ occurs I shall rise in peace.” This is a wonderful testimony to resting in Christ.
One of these epitaphs addresses the person directly. Her name was Aproniana, and she was only five years and five months old when she died. Her epitaph says, “Aproniana you believed in God, you will live in Christ.” This is a beautiful testimony to the hope of our salvation and the eternal life that we have in Christ.
Another of these epitaphs reads, “Now that I have received divine grace I shall be welcomed in peace.” This particular text is preceded by the early Christian symbol, the fish. One last epitaph simply says, “This person was a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
These epitaphs provide a beautiful witness to the lives and beliefs of early Christians.