Whispering Ghosts of the Past
I was mystified a few days before to hear a tour guide describe the suffering and persecution of multiplied thousands of Christians who had been cruelly hunted down and slaughtered in this city merely for the pleasure of bloodthirsty mobs. I found myself deeply moved when I heard these stories. Now, alone in the darkness late at night there in the Coliseum ruins, I could almost imagine I could hear the long-dead ghosts of the distant past, and the deafening impassioned roar of the blood-thirsty spectators as entire Christian families below were eviscerated, burned alive, or torn to pieces by hunger-crazed wild beasts. What was this growing sense of empathy that I felt for these Christians who had lived and bravely died so long ago?
I pondered why these people would seemingly welcome a cruel and vicious
death rather than deny their faith in Jesus. What empowerment could possibly enable fathers and mothers to witness their little children burned, drowned, or devoured by vicious animals right in front of their eyes before they themselves died, all the while worshipping God and singing His praises?
I have since learned that the Roman authorities would have allowed any of these Christians to go free had they only made a simple acknowledgement of allegiance to Caesar as supreme authority over all other gods. The Christian had only to place a tiny
pinch of incense before an image of Caesar to affirm his preeminence. Most Christians refused to make this blasphemous declaration, instead boldly proclaiming that Jesus was King of all kings and Lord of all lords. Caesar, who fancied himself a god, took a very dim view of anyone daring to declare that he was somehow under the authority of what he thought was an insignificant dead Jew from Palestine.
I was forced to conclude that those early Christians had SEEN something so wonderful, so magnificent and amazing, that all else in this world, even their very lives, lost significance by comparison. What was this mystical revelation that motivated them to sing praises unto their Christ, even as they suffered and died? What gave them the fearless ability to lay down their lives rather than deny their faith in Christ? My emotions were stirred. I suspected that God was touching my life and calling me to a journey I could scarcely imagine. Little did I realize that my quest had already begun . . . .
These questions hung over me like a rain cloud as I finally stumbled out of the Coliseum into the cool morning air. The eastern sky was beginning to lighten with the promise of a new dawn, and the birds began to chirp. Slowly making my way back through the quiet, early-morning streets of Rome to the cheap hotel where I was staying, the encounter in the Coliseum haunted me. But first, I had to sleep off another hangover.
Persecution Above, Prayer Below
Driven by a power I couldn’t understand, I spent the next several days touring other ancient sites around Rome, but felt especially drawn to the catacombs that surround the city. I recently found this quote from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:
It has been said that the lives of the early Christians consisted of: “Persecution above ground and prayer below ground.” Their lives are expressed by the Coliseum and the catacombs. Beneath Rome are the excavations, which we call the catacombs, which were at once temples and tombs. The early Church of Rome might well be called the Church of the Catacombs.
I learned that archeologists had discovered some sixty catacombs surrounding Rome. The tunnels stretch out over six hundred miles, and measure in most places nearly eight feet high and three to five feet wide. Along the sides of these tunnels, several rows of horizontal recesses were dug out, stacked above each other like bunk beds. These comprised the crypts into which corpses were laid, with inscribed marble slabs or tiles sealing in the deceased.
Mile after mile I wandered through this macabre graveyard, illuminated only by the guide’s flashlight or oil lamps. It was an eerie place, musty and cold. Looking into the crypts-where the marble slabs had been destroyed by grave robbers-I could see the bones of some of the dead. For many hundreds of years both Pagans and Christians were laid to rest in this place.
When Christian graves were opened-evidenced to be Christian by inscriptions of
Icon of Christ raising Lazarus
(From 3rd Century Roman Catacomb)
crosses and the “fish” symbol-ample forensic evidence of torture and murder was often found. Heads were discovered severed from the bodies, and many bones were broken about the ribs, backs, and extremities. Calcined bones also showed evidence of fire.
In spite of the evidence of horrendous suffering and persecution inflicted upon these poor Christian souls-of whom I now know the world was not worthy-the epitaphs inscribed upon the graves spoke of a sublime, heavenly peace. Here are a few that were discovered and quoted in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs:
“Here lies Marcia, put to rest in a dream of peace.”
“Lawrence to his sweetest son, borne away of angels.”
“Victorious in peace and in Christ.”
“Being called away, he went in peace.”
Bear in mind that these tender expressions, inscribed lovingly by the hands of those who knew and loved them, reveal little of the intense suffering these precious saints endured at the hands of their tormentors, nor any indictment against their murderers.
These inscriptions hold special significance to me in that I have seen these things with my own eyes. My hands have tenderly caressed the bones of some of these inspiring people. The musty smells of those holy underground hiding and burying places remain in the nostrils of my memory. For days, I wandered among the dead in those seemingly endless tunnels, listening to the whispering ghosts of those who had long ago lived and died there. With each step I took down the descending stairways-moving ever deeper into the labyrinth-my respect deepened in equal measure for the amazing commitment these people demonstrated for a Christ they would rather die for than deny.
Often, as I reflect on the experience, I seemed to feel that unseen presence that I
encountered in the Coliseum, walking with me through the labyrinths of the catacombs. In a way, it was similar to the ghost of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Story
, where Scrooge was shown things from the past, present, and future–things that would eventually form the new man he was becoming. “Who were these Christians?” I kept asking myself. “Why were they so hated and viciously tormented by people in their day?” I soon learned that questions such as these can be dangerous to one’s selfish autonomy.