The earliest Christians had a tough time of it.
From the first appearance of the disciples, communities throughout the Roman Empire viewed those who followed the path of Jesus of Nazareth with suspicion. "What is this new cult? Rumor has it they are cannibals who eat the body and blood of their teacher!"
But this localized scorn was nothing compared to the full-on persecution of Imperial Rome. In 64 A.D., when a fire destroyed a significant portion of the city of Rome, rumors circulated that the emperor himself had started the blaze. "Nero fiddled, while Rome burned." Seeking to deflect responsibility, Nero fixed blame for the fire on the heads of a small, politically powerless sect - the Christians.
One ancient historian, Tacitus, described the emperor's response this way: Nero now delights in thinking up "the most exquisite tortures" for the "abominable Christians."
Throughout the realm, those who professed a faith in Jesus were stoned, burned and fed to ravenous lions. Nero's depraved acts initiated a period of violent persecution, torture and martyrdom for Christians that lasted into the 4th century.
During this period, most Christians kept a low profile. Yes, the faith continued to spread, but not because Christians were building churches or cathedrals. In fact, the only properties held in common by early Christians were tombs - places for burying their dead.
The most famous of these tombs were the catacombs, dug by early Christians in the porous rock that could be found just outside the walls of Rome. Strange as may seem, these catacombs - these underground tunnels with places to lay the bones of loved ones - were the church's first communal space.
The catacombs were a place where the faithful could gather, away from the daily violence, to pray, to sing and to mourn those martyred by the Romans; a place where the living and the dead could dwell together; a place where the faithful could safely speak of the God they loved.
Since the catacombs were the first Christian worship space, it makes sense that they were also the first place where Christians made art. On the walls of the tombs, the faithful witnessed to each other through frescoes, mosaics and sculptures.
The most common image etched and painted in these early Christian tombs is an intriguing scene. A bearded man stands pointing at a burial chamber with a magic wand. Through the open door of the tomb, a figure wrapped like a mummy, a creature from the realm of the dead, stiffly steps into the world of the living.
Down in the catacombs, in a time before grand cathedrals, Christians decorated their only communal property - a series of tunnels for storing their dead - with the image of a tomb, a mummy and a magician.
Despite the addition of a few theatrical flourishes, archeologists recognize this picture as our Gospel text for this coming Sunday: The Raising of Lazarus (John 11: 1-44).
As we get closer to Holy Week, I have been asking myself two questions. First: "What one Biblical scene would I choose to convey the heart of the faith to both friend and foe?" And second: "In a world in which there is so much death, so much violence (the violence of Rome can look meager next to our headlines), where do we see life bursting forth? Where do we see the dead emerging from tombs and God's glory shining forth from empty graves?"
[Taken with permission from Dr. Scott Black Johnston's blog, "Sharp About Your Prayers." Originally posted 4/7/2011.]