When my wife and I vacationed in Italy with Perillo Tours, our adventure began in Rome, the Eternal City. Besides seeing the standard sights such as Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum and the ruins of Ancient Rome, we tacked onto our excursion the Catacombs of Domitilla. Initially, these were underground graves used by some of the Roman nobles to bury their dead. There were grave markers to identify the family crypt so to speak. According to our tour guides, the Romans rarely buried their dead as they opted for cremation. Over time, the Christians made use of these catacombs, eventually digging out eleven miles worth of tombs.
Because these early Christians believed in the resurrection of the dead, they abhorred the Roman practice of cremation. To these ancient believers, it demonstrated unbelief in the bodily resurrection; therefore, cremation was unbecoming of those who followed Christ and his teachings. I was struck by this factoid even though I have embraced a similar perspective like my forbears. At the present time, I do not take such a strong stance. To put it another way, I do not see this as a hill to die on between Christ followers. My thinking is as follows: whether by fire or by decay, my body turns into dust and ashes (Genesis 3:19, ESV). In the end, I leave the notion of whether to cremate or to bury one’s dead to his or her own conscience in conjunction with the leading of the Holy Spirit.
All that aside, below are two pictures that I took of grave markers used by these ancient Christians. These are found throughout this labyrinthine network of Domitilla catacombs:
The bottom picture shows a fish with Greek text. This ancient symbol of the Christian faith endures right up to today. There are bumper stickers, t-shirts, magnets, key chains, bracelets, and the like, which display this ancient symbol without the Greek text. What really fascinates me about this symbol is that the text transliterated into English means ICHTUS. According to the following website, ICHTUS forms an acrostic: I = Jesus, C = Christ, TH = God, U = Son, and S = Savior. The center or focus of the Christian’s faith is Christ. He is the author and finisher of it, which echoes the words from Hebrews 12:2. These early Christians knew what they were doing. Before anyone starts to yawn, there’s more to come.
Our tour guide pointed out to us the meaning or the significance of the top picture, which displays two fish clinging onto an anchor. In the early church, these Christians depicted salvation as an anchor. I love this image. What keeps me secure or prevents me from drifting out to sea so to speak? My faith in Christ sustains or anchors me through highs and lows. This is exactly the meaning of the two fish holding onto the anchor. These early Christians understood that their faith was secure in Christ. Where did these first Christians get the idea to depict their salvation as an anchor? The biblical support for this symbol comes from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. Here’s the passage:
“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:19-20, ESV).
There is one final point to note about that these early Christians. They did not employ the cross as a Christian symbol until 400 years after Christ’s death. This article sheds some light on this subject. I think it is important to remember that the early church faced intense persecution in its infancy. Both the fish and the anchor symbols served to unite these believers around their confession of faith and the suffering that resulted from it. One word that comes to mind is solidarity or unity. Enjoy these ancient, Christian symbols of truth.