Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In May, as a part of my continuing education, my wife Janna and I visited the city of Rome. My summer sermon series in the Footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul is based on that visit. This morning we turn to St Sebastian and the Catacombs.
St. Sebastian, the patron saints of soldiers and athletes, is perhaps the most recognizable of the martyrs of the early church. He is commonly depicted in art and literature tied to a post, pierced with arrows in his side and his gaze fixed toward heaven. According to legend, Sebastian was born in Gaul to a family from Milan, travelled to Rome, and joined the army of Emperor Carinus in 283 AD. Later, under Emperor Diocletian, he became a captain in the Praetorian Guard. Unlike Emperor Carinus, Diocletian held the greatest animosity towards Christians. He did not believe they could be faithful to the Empire nor return it to its former glory. Eventually, as the emperor, Diocletian unleashed the last and most severe persecution of Christians. When Diocletian discovered that Sebastian himself was a Christian who had converted many soldiers to the faith, he ordered the young captain to be killed by his finest archers. After piercing with tens of arrows, they left him for dead, but a Christian widow named Irene found his body and nursed him back to health. When the opportunity presented itself, Sebastian appeared in the emperor’s palace and denounced him for his cruelty to Christians. Again, Sebastian was sentenced to death, this time he was beaten with clubs and thrown into city’s main sewer. His body was recovered and buried in the catacombs which now bear his name. Tradition states that this was the same place that the relics of St. Peter and St. Paul were also lain. St Sebastian is remembered in the church as a man who demonstrated his courage and love for Jesus and who valued fidelity to Christ higher than any worldly honor.
Coincidentally, there is a contemporary link to St. Sebastian. As the beginning of the pandemic, devout Roman Catholics were encouraged to pray to St. Sebastian to spare them from the novel corona virus. Why, you may ask? During the Middle Ages, St. Sebastian was identified as the patron saint of the Bubonic Plague all because he had survived his own arrow wounds. There was still a persistent belief from pagan times that pestilence and the Black Death came from the arrows shot by the gods. Later images of St. Sebastian often included the women who saved him, St. Irene of Rome tending to his wounds and bringing him back to life. It was both a nod to his valor and modern nursing.
In ancient times the site where St. Sebastian was buried was simply known as the catacumbas, a Greek term composed of two words, katà and kymbe, literally meaning “close to the cavity.” The cavity was an abandoned quarry which was developed in the 2nd century AD into a labyrinth of underground tunnels with niches for pagan burial, primarily among Christians and Jews. The passageways themselves could be miles long. If the Romans were adept at building 4 story tenement housing above ground inside the city, they were just as adept at building 4 story cemeteries under ground outside of the city walls.
There is confusion today, however, about the use of the catacombs in ancient Rome. Some state that they were used by the early Christians as hiding places during times of persecution. Others say that they were used for secret gatherings of believers. Historically, they were seldom used for regular worship gatherings. No, the primary and almost exclusive use of the catacombs was for burial.
The oldest name for the underground catacombs was simply “cemetery,” a word that derived from Greek that means “place of rest.” When the early Roman Christians laid the bodies of their deceased loved ones into the catacomb niches they were certain that they were only asleep for a short while, awaiting the awakening of the resurrection. For that reason. the catacombs were not intended to be a sad, dark passage way to nowhere, but for the church they were a secret passage way that opened the pilgrim to the beauty, faith and memory of those who believed in Christ and in his word of hope.
With that said, Christians did gather in these places, beneath richly decorated plastered ceiling and surrounded by ornately frescoed covered walls, to share meals with the deceased, to recall the promise of the resurrection and to call upon the memory of the saints. Since there still were no churches, the art in the catacombs became a way to teach the faith through recurring images and symbols. These symbols would in time become a part our own ecclesiastical language. Jesus was portrayed as the good shepherd, as well as a fish. This was part of the secret code of the early Christians. The Greek word ichthus for “fish” was the acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Savior.” The dove illustrated peace in heaven. The anchor was the symbol of the strength rooted in faith and both the peacock and phoenix represented rebirth.
Even after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD, many believers desired to be buried in chambers alongside the martyrs. By the 6th century, however, the catacombs were used only for martyrs’ memorial services. The fear of the Ostrogoths, Vandals and Lombards that sacked Rome also terrorized the protectors of the catacombs who feared them to be grave robbers. By the 10th century, the catacombs were practically abandoned, and the holy relics were transferred to above-ground basilicas. Except for the catacombs of St. Sebastian and two others, people lost almost all trace of the nearly 70 catacombs that once encircled Rome, until the end Middle Ages, when Antonio Bosio began his archaeological exploration of Rome. He would be called “the Columbus of subterranean Rome.”
So why are St. Sebastian, St Irene and the almost forgotten catacombs so important to the story of the early church? First, I believe their stories teach us how the Christian faith offered good news to both the fighting soldiers on the battlefield and to the lowly miners who dug the tunnels of the catacombs beneath the earth whether they were Jew or Gentile. This new religion was embraced by free people of the lower and middle class, and slaves alike. The upper class was often cautious about the Christian faith, due to the obligations of high public office which often included participation in some pagan religion rites such as public sacrifices. That leads me the to the second point. While men of high status were somehow precluded from embracing Christianity, this was not true for the women. In fact, many noble women like St. Irene of Rome converted to Christianity. They provided the homes for the Sunday worship gatherings, and they purchased the land under which the catacombs would be tunneled. These noble women used their gifts and reputation to establish and foster the Christian community.
Lately, it’s been popular among theologians, historians and church leaders to say that throughout the ages the church has oppressed women, and that even the Apostle Paul was a woman-hater. Nothing could be further from the truth. Surprisingly, in his letter to the Church in Rome, St. Paul identified 28 people he wanted to greet when he arrived in the city. Ten of them were women. Even that statistic should be impressive in a fairly male-dominated society. Paul was certainly not ignoring women. Instead, Paul underscored that gender equality existed in the early church which was somehow missing in the ancient Roman society.
Finally, my friends, that is what I believe is true of the message of the catacombs themselves. The tunnels beneath the earth, linked the faithful together regardless of their economic status, class, ethnicity or state at birth and bound them all together as one. They were drawn close together even in the darkness, resting in peace for that day when they would be raised together. As Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Yes, together, they all waited for the day of Christ’s resurrection when a new morning light would dawn. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.