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THE CHURCH IN THE CATACOMBS.
BENEATH the gay and busy streets of Rome, and far beyond, under the green fields and smiling gardens of the Campania, there lay a vast subterranean city of sepulchral passages and chambers, which had been scooped out in the course of long ages from the living rock, and which served alike for a refuge to the living and a resting-place to the dead. Originating, as it has been thought, at first in a manner wholly accidental, in the excavations made, in the early years of the empire, in the soft tufa for building purposes, those dreary vaults had been gradually extended and enlarged, according to a more definite plan, by the Christians, until they had grown into an interminable labyrinth of blind corridors and alleys, ranged in successive tiers, one above another, and branching out one from another in an endless and inextricable maze. Entering by a secret opening in some sequestered spot hid by bushes and trees, and descending by a narrow flight of steps, you find yourself in the first floor or story of this mysterious abode. Groping your way, by the light of a lamp or torch, along one of the long and narrow passages which cross and recross one another in every direction, you come at length to a spot where the path descends again, and brings you by another flight of steps to another and similar labyrinth below; and from this again to another. Meanwhile, on every side, in the walls, and beneath the floor, alike of passages and chambers, you are surrounded by the countless sepulchres of the dead, and the rude epitaph, and simple but expressive symbol of death and victory, look out upon you through the gloom at every step. At length, as you wander on "in endless mazes lost," you feel that you are in a city of the dead, which in point of extent rivals, and in population vastly exceeds, the city of the living above your head. To use the words of a recent eye-witness,
"A catacomb may be divided into three parts--its passages or
streets, its chambers or squares, and its churches. The passages are long narrow galleries, cut with tolerable regularity, so that the roof and floor are at right angles with the sides, often so narrow as scarcely to allow two persons to go abreast. They sometimes go quite straight to a great length; but they are crossed by others, and these again by others, so as to form a complete labyrinth or net-work of subterranean corridors. To be lost among them would easily be fatal.
"But these passages are not constructed, as the name would imply, merely to lead to something else. Their walls as well as the sides of the staircase are honey-combed with graves; that is, with rows of excavations, large and small, of sufficient length to admit a human body, from a child to a full-grown man, laid with its side to the gallery. Sometimes there are as many as fourteen, sometimes as few as three or four of these rows, one above the other.
"When the corpse, wrapped up in a fair linen cloth, with some embalming or preserving substance, was laid in its narrow cell, the front was hermetically closed, either by a marble slab, or more frequently by several broad tiles, put edgeways in a groove or mortise cut for them in the rock, and cemented all round. The inscription was cut upon the marble or scratched upon the wet mortar. Thousands of the former sort have been collected, and may be seen in museums and churches; many of the latter have been copied and published, but by far the greater number of tombs are anonymous, and have no record upon them."
At intervals in the line of these central passages or streets occur the other two kinds of excavations referred to above-the chambers and the churches. They are simply enlargements of the central passage, both in breadth and in height, by scooping out the rock on either side and above. Some were of smaller size, and were designed, evidently, to signalize the place of some more important tomb; others larger, and were destined to the purposes of religious worship. These latter, in after times profusely decorated by sculpture and painting, were doubtless at first of the simplest description. They consisted of two square or oblong chambers, one on
one side, and the other on the other of the central passage, and destined respectively for the accommodation of the male and the female worshippers, who in those days were jealously kept distinct. They were lighted sometimes by apertures in the roof, and sometimes by lamps hung on the walls around. These walls, like those of the passages and smaller chambers, were full of niches or recesses, in which the remains of their friends were sleeping, while the living were there praising the Lord for whom some of those friends had died as martyrs.
In this dreary realm, then, the Christians for centuries had their hiding-place, and almost their home. Here they laid the precious dust of their departed brethren; here in times of trial they fled for refuge, or met by the lurid torch-light to worship their God. The desolate loneliness and dreary noisomeness of the place, where in earlier times the outlaw and the robber had had their den, suited well the condition of a people who were looked on as the filth of the earth and the offscouring of all things; while the numerous inlets and outlets which connected it with the outer world, and the blind labyrinth of its passages within, afforded endless facilities for concealment or escape. There, even in the worst times, they were for the most part secure; and even when now and then a band of keen pursuers, attracted, perhaps, by the plaintive cadence of holy hymns, faintly heard from afar, suddenly came upon their retreat, they had usually time, at the signal of an outlying sentinel, to break up, and scatter, and vanish amid the dark labyrinths around, before the enemy was actually upon them.
As time wore on, and successive generations of Christians passed through those gloomy realms to their eternal rest, the sacred associations of the place multiplied and deepened. Nowhere was the suffering Church so much at home as where, far from the noisy haunts of sinful men, they were surrounded by the great and ever increasing congregation of those triumphant saints, from whose bright mansions they felt they were only by a thin veil separated. Everything, too, which they saw around them, in rude epitaph and sculptured device, served to remind them of the same blessed hope. The very name of death was
unknown even in that city of the dead. "IN CHRIST"-" IN PEACE"-" DEPOSITED AND LAID то REST IN PEACE"-" VALERIA SLEEPS" *—such are the ever-recurring expressions of a faithwhich had shorn death of its gloom, and disarmed it of its sting; while the sheep on the shepherd's shoulders, the martyr three living amid the flames, Lazarus rising from the tomb, Noal looking out from the ark and welcoming the returning dove when the flood was passing away, looking down from the dim walls, spoke to their hearts of strength in weakness, victory in suffering, life in death.
The inscriptions are for the most part very brief, consisting often of the simple name of the silent sleeper, or with a single word added significant of rest and peace; sometimes, however, they are longer, and give full expression to the Christian faith and hope of those that rest within, and of those who laid them there. We may give two of these, as an appropriate close to this sketch, and which may serve as a specimen of the spirit, pensive yet serene, sad yet triumphant, that fills the place, and which pervaded the whole atmosphere of Christian life in those early times:
IN CHRIST.-IN THE TIME OF THE EMPEROR ADRIAN, MARIUS, A YOUNG MILITARY OFFICER, WHO HAD LIVED LONG ENOUGH, WHEN WITH BLOOD HE GAVE UP HIS LIFE FOR CHRIST. AT LENGTH HE RESTED IN PEACE. THE WELL DESERVING SET UP THIS IN TEARS AND IN FEAR.
ALEXANDER IS NOT DEAD, BUT LIVES ABOVE THE STARS, AND HIS BODY RESTS IN THIS TOMB. HE ENDED HIS LIFE UNDER THE EMPEROR ANTONINUS, WHO, FORESEEING THAT GREAT BENEFIT WOULD RESULT FROM HIS SERVICES, RETURNED EVIL FOR GOOD FOR WHILE ON HIS KNEES, AND ABOUT TO SACRIFICE TO THE TRue god, he wAS LED AWAY TO EXECUTION. SAD TIMES, IN WHICH AMID SACRED RITES AND PRAYERS, EVEN IN CAVERNS, WE ARE NOT SAFE ! WHAT CAN BE MORE WRETCHED THAN SUCH A LIFE? AND WHAT THAN SUCH A DEATH, WHEN THEY CANNOT BE BURIED BY THEIR FRIENDS AND RELATIONS? AT LENGTH THEY SPARKLE IN HEAVEN! HAS SCARCELY LIVED WHO HAS LIVED IN CHRISTIAN TIMES.
ISLAY BURNS, D.D.
* The designation given to the place-the "cemetery," or sleeping-chamber-spoke not of dissolution, but of repose.