Picture #1: Hope in the Darkness Underground
If you’re just joining us at The Broken Bride, perhaps you are unaware of my current project. I’ve just started to systematically work my way through a new book by Terry Glaspey called 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know. Today, I reflect on Masterpiece #1: The Roman Catacombs. (See Terry’s book for a more detailed description of the catacombs.)
Hope. It’s something we cling to in our darkest hours, something politicians in recent years have used for political slogans, and realistically, hope is something no man can live without. That said, who would have thought that Christians in the early centuries would have been given hope by spending hours underground in dimly lit caverns where their dead were entombed?
Travel back in time with me to the first few centuries after Christ. Christianity is an illegal religion because the allegiance it inspires challenges the Roman Empire. Persecution of Christians has been so horrendous and has reached such epic proportions that not only are the Christians secret about their Christianity, they are not allowed to bury their dead in traditional cemeteries. Instead, they have gone underground and carving out miles upon miles of caverns, they have hewn spaces in which to place the bodies of their newly departed loved ones. On the walls beside the spaces, they have drawn pictures. Their favorite image to draw is the Good Shepherd carrying young lambs close to His heart. These pictures give them hope. Every time they look at the Gentle Shepherd they are reminded they are not alone in their sorrows and that there is One who knows their heartaches and carries each sorrowing Christian close to His heart. So they continue to draw pictures from their ancestral history on the walls surrounding the tombs, each picture a reminder that God is in control and will ultimately provide deliverance.
Some things never change. Persecution is one of them. We in the West have no idea of the depth and breadth of suffering endured by first century Christians or by our fellow Christians today. We talk about it and stomp our feet a bit whenever someone closes the door on our worldview in online discussions, but the kind of suffering endured by Christians in other parts of the world is something we cannot understand. And if we’re totally honest with ourselves, we do not care. So long as persecution is not in our own backyard, it is usually a million miles away in our thoughts and in our prayers.
Two years ago, I was given the opportunity to spend a summer in the UK. I attended four different churches during my trip. In every single church, the persecuted church in the Middle East was lifted faithfully before the throne of grace. I remember wondering if this was because the UK was closer to the Middle East geographically than we are in America, but I was blessed by an awareness that there were these in the body of Christ who were praying for others within the body of Christ who were suffering for their faith. These Christians viewed it as their job to pray for brothers and sisters they’d never met. They couldn’t take pain and suffering away, but they could pray. And they did.
One Sunday afternoon that summer, my sweet English hostess Cecily and her husband John, invited several friends from their church over for a picnic lunch. Among the picnickers was a quiet Middle Eastern Christian whose name was Ruth. My hostess informed me that Ruth’s husband was head of a Christian seminary in the Middle East but for three years he had been studying in Oxford. When he was done studying, they would go back to their Muslim country. The quiet ones always intrigue me, so I moved close to Ruth and we began to talk. I learned from this dear sister that the seminary was housed in a compound, but Muslims lived there too. Ruth lived in fear pretty much all the time when she was at home in her Middle Eastern country. She said that most of the time the problems between Muslims and Christians were buried beneath the surface, but if the Muslims did not like you or they thought they had found a reason to hate you, they would just burn down your house. As a Christian, her beliefs had gone underground. They’d had to if she didn’t want her house burned down. My guess is that the Muslims didn’t really know about the seminary, or if they did, they had no idea what happened there.
If my neighbor doesn’t like me, he just ignores me. But for Ruth, persecution for what she believes is a constant menace. It threatens her physical well-being and that of her young family. And about a year prior to their UK visit, her daughter had reached the age when she had to decide if she would wear a scarf or a religious head covering to school. Ruth’s daughter had chosen against, and from the moment of that choice, Ruth began to fear for her safety every time she went to school. Imagine this, my Western friend. Your daughter has chosen not to wear a religious head covering to school and every day you live in fear that her choice will cause her physical harm, maybe even death. This wasn’t hypothetical persecution. It was real and its very realness bothered me. What bothers me more is the decided apathy the church in the West displays toward Christians in persecuted countries. But there is hope.
Joirney with me to the front doors of a tiny Anglican church in Colorado. The year is 2016. As we step inside together, all is newness and in some ways, it is very strange. To be honest, it is also quite uncomfortable for me. They do things here I’ve rarely done. They actually get on their knees to pray. They go forward to receive communion. They recite prayers that saints have prayed for centuries rather than relying on the guy up front to say just the right words at just the right time. It is an interactive service. The people are a part of what is happening. And right in the middle of it all, there is a time set aside for extended prayer. Again I hear what I haven’t heard since I returned to this country, a prayer ascending on behalf of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, and I am invited to pray along.
I can’t help thinking of Ruth as I pray. Persecution now wears a familiar face. Ruth’s sweet face and her struggle with daily fear inspires me to continue to pray for all the Ruth’s in all the persecuted churches in the Middle East. And the memory of the early Christians finding hope in the pictures in their darkened catacombs makes me wonder anew how it is that art intersects suffering.
What it was about the art in those early Christian catacombs that gave hope in the midst of intense persecution? Was it the quality of the artwork? Certainly not. From all accounts, it was quite simple. Was it the serenity the family felt while visiting, sometimes even having picnics underground in order to be near those they loved once again? Perhaps. But I have another idea. I tend to think that art has a way of causing us to see our own lives differently. The best art wakes us up to reality, sometimes enabling us to see with our hearts what remains hidden to our physical eyes. Early Christians needed a different perspective. In their above-ground world, they were surrounded by sorrow, persecution and death, but their temporary sojourns in the caverns revealed two things. The pictures revealed a world outside of time, one filled with light and life and promise of deliverance. And the images reminded the sufferers of the Savior’s gentle embrace at a time when a gentle embrace from one who had suffered to the point of death but rose victorious after the suffering was exactly what these saints needed to give them hope to carry through.
May we continue to pray for those in our own world who need hope. And maybe, just maybe, it will be our prayers or our pictures of deliverance shared in ways we can’t even begin to imagine that will provide hope for these dear brothers and sisters in Christ who need to see beyond the strictures of a world in which to be a Christian spells sure and certain doom. May we, as faithful pray-ers, be used by God to light the darkness of their way.