In the ancient world, tombs or catacombs lined ancient roadways (well, at least in Rome). Many people used the catacomb space for funerary feasts or the like. And so did Christians. They worshipped in catacombs, surrounded by the dead.
The (possible) symbolism of Christian worship in catacombs fascinates me. Here’s why.
Death as a Corrupting Thing
The in the Old Testament, death is a corrupting thing. In the sixteenth psalm, Christ prays to his Father, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption” (v. 10). The implication is clear. To die and enter into Sheol entailed corruption. Death or the place of the dead robbed people of joy, of any good things. The preacher writers, “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Ecc 9:10). Sheol deprives. It corrupts.
Demons and Tombs
With this background in mind, I find the story of Jesus and Legion fascinating. When Jesus arrived in Gerasenes, he meets a man “out of the tombs” who had a demon (Mark 5:2). Mark reminds us that the demon-possessed man came from the tombs three times in this story (5:2, 3, 5). And Mark tells his readers that it’s not just one demon but many: “My name is Legion, for we are many” (5:9).
And how fitting is this? After all, Satan’s power over the world is at its base the power of the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15). So the legion of demons congregate in the tombs, the place where the dead lay, the place where Satan’s power has a visible reminder.*
And Jesus does something remarkable. He casts out the demons into pigs. And the demonic powers inhabiting the tombs flee headlong into destruction. Jesus cleanses the tombs of the demonic power. He prefigures what he would finally accomplish on the cross. He harrows the tomb and plucks up Satan’s power. The corrupting influence of the legion of demons evaporated.
The Light from the Tomb
When Jesus died, he descended into Hades (1 Pet 3:19; 4:6; Eph 4:9). And in so doing, he gained the keys to Hades, to unlock death itself. Jesus says, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). He earned them by conquering death, by harrowing hell, and by rising from the grave.
He lay in the grave for three days and rose from the dead.
And in his rising, he defeated death. He fulfilled that old prophecy from Hosea: “I will deliver this people from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. Where, O death, are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?” (Hos 13:14).
He put death to death. And as Athanasius writes, Christians do not fear death. Instead, they rush into it as martyrs. Christ opened up the way for them, and they march on with confidence.
The demonic and corrupting influence of the tombs, of the dead, no longer had sway with Christians because Christ killed death. Those outside the faith still feared it. But not the Christians. And I suspect this could explain (in part) why Christians did not fear to worship in catacombs. And even if it does not, the symbolism of worshipping nevertheless the catacombs should not be lost on us.
Christians worshipped in the very place of Satan’s old-age power, the place of the death. And they did it without fear, crushing the head of the serpent every time they sang to or preached about the risen king.
*I owe this insight and others in this section to something that I read recently…although I cannot remember what! Possibly Richard Beck.