Aug. 6 marks the feast of the Transfiguration, the manifestation of Jesus’ glory to his inner circle of disciples on a mountain (traditionally Mount Tabor). Mountains, Pope Benedict notes in his comments on the Transfiguration in Jesus of Nazareth, can represent a “locus of God’s particular closeness,” of inner as well as outer ascent.
But closeness to God can also be found in the depths of the earth — as I recently discovered in the catacombs of St. Callixtus while on pilgrimage in Italy with my daughter Sarah. On the mountain, Jesus’ face shone like the sun, foreshadowing the glory of the Resurrection. Away from the face of the sun, in the darkness of the catacombs, the effects of the Resurrection on Jesus’ followers and their world can still be seen in a particularly dramatic way.
Jesus’ glory, like the Resurrection, is a mystery of faith that is not openly revealed to all. Yet the historical effects of these mysteries continue to be felt, like ripples in the ebb and flow of history — patterns that point beyond themselves, phenomena that resist easy explanations. The mystery makes its presence felt in different ways, not only to the eyes of faith, but also to the eyes of historical inquiry.
Everything we know historically about the development and spread of Christianity — from what fragments of pre-Pauline tradition we have (the creedal formula of 1 Corinthians 15:3, the Christological hymn of Philippians 2) to the various strata of New Testament tradition and extracanonical evidence — confirms that, from the start, the resurrection of Jesus was the defining and central Christian idea: the impetus of the whole Christian movement.
The Resurrection changed everything. For the early Christians, it changed death itself. Even the Jewish hope for what we now call the general resurrection wasn’t as vital a part of Judaism as it became in Christian faith.
Jews had always practiced burial, in contrast to the common pagan practice of cremation. In Rome, where land for burial was scarce, Christians took burial to a whole new level — in fact, to several new levels. Excavating massive underground labyrinths in the soft volcanic rock of the Roman countryside, they carved out row upon row of niches for burying the dead. The uniqueness of their hope was even evident in the language they used. In contrast to the pagan term “necropolis” (city of the dead), the Christians coined the usage “cemetery,” a term literally meaning “dormitory” or “place of sleep.”
The catacombs of St. Callixtus go four levels deep, more than 65 feet below the surface, with 12 miles of galleries winding around a 90-acre plot of land. Nine popes and a number of other Roman prelates were buried here, along with innumerable other faithful, though many notable remains have since been removed to other locations.
Much of the catacombs look just the way you imagine them: dark, winding corridors with rows of pockets carved into the walls on both sides from floor to roof far above visitors’ heads. Many are still sealed, walled over with brick or slabs of marble. Others are open, the remains long gone. Most of the relics, I suppose, were distributed for veneration. The niches are of all shapes and sizes, perhaps custom carved for the deceased. Some are tiny; these are surely crypts for children or even babies.
In rooms hewn out for family burial, there are much larger niches carved with apse-like arches. Within these niches, the burial spots were dug out, not horizontally into the back wall, but vertically, downward, like an above-ground grave. A marble slab was then placed over the remains, forming the bottom surface of the large niche: a natural table or altar where the Eucharist was celebrated, literally upon the tombs of the saints.
In some of these are dim images, dating to the second through fourth centuries, representing baptism, the Eucharist and the resurrection of Christ. Other images date to later times, such as a ninth-century fresco depicting Christ Pantocrator, the Lord of All, in the crypt of St. Cecilia.
The tour guides try to keep you moving at a pace not especially conducive to prayerful contemplation. A few times Sarah and I ignored our guide, kneeling to pray as the group moved on. Sometimes you have to make your own pilgrimage.
Kneeling in those corridors, I reflected: The people who first excavated them belonged to the ancient world of Jesus and the apostles. They lived in the shadow of the imperial power under which Jesus was crucified. They were separated from Jesus by only a few generations — closer in a way than we are to the time of Abraham Lincoln or George Washington, since the world has changed drastically from the times of Lincoln and Washington, whereas the Roman world in the second and third centuries hadn’t changed that much since the time of Jesus.
I’ve prayed at the tombs of Peter and Paul. In those sites, finished in marble under two of Christendom’s grandest churches, there is a corporeal and spiritual connection to the apostles, but no experience of their world. In the catacombs, the walls around me, the floor under my feet and the roof over my head, the recesses yawning as far as the eye can see are all a direct historical effect of the apostles’ belief and preaching that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
I’ve never been to the Holy Land. In the catacombs, I was, in a way, nearer to the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth than at any other time in my life.
Why does this matter? Don’t we have Jesus alive, in glory, in the Blessed Sacrament? Yes. But there’s a reason why Catholics who have the sacraments at home have always gone abroad on pilgrimages. In the Eucharist, we have the whole Jesus, but we also believe that the Eucharist is a perpetuation of the Incarnation, in which the Divine Nature entered the human world in a particular historical and cultural context.
Our belief in the Eucharist, in Jesus in glory, in the Blessed Trinity itself is rooted in historical events that occurred in an obscure backwater of the ancient Near East two millennia ago. We are creatures of culture and history as well as spirit and body, and we need that historical and cultural connection to the Divine as well as the sacramental connection of the holy Eucharist. In such moments, we find what Pope Benedict called “God’s particular closeness.”
Such experiences don’t last, of course. They aren’t meant to. Peter, James and John had to come back down from the mountain; I had to come back up from the catacombs into the heat and light of day. But Jesus intended that experience of particular closeness to strengthen the disciples during a coming experience of particular absence. Likewise, my experience in the catacombs means little if I emerge unchanged — if I haven’t experienced something I can hold onto.
Archaeology cannot point to the footprints of Moses and Elijah on the mountain. At most, weighing the Synoptic tradition, historical inquiry can reasonably argue that something must have happened on the mountain — an extraordinary experience that dramatically confirmed the disciples’ faith in Jesus and set Jesus on the road to his execution.
The catacombs represent dramatic evidence that something happened on Easter Sunday. As many have contended — most recently and exhaustively N. T. Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God — the historical origins of belief in Jesus’ resurrection virtually defy any explanation but one: that Jesus really was raised from the dead.
To accept this — and to accept, moreover, Jesus as the Son of God — remains a leap of faith. But it’s a leap with unique explanatory power. In the catacombs, I was confronted with the triumph of life over death. That’s something I can hold onto.