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December 5, 2008


The provocation of building churches in graveyards!

by quaesitor

It had never occurred to me before. But then of course, I’d never stopped to ask the question before. But why is it that from the earliest days, Christians buried their dead in huge catacombs under the city, and then later built their church meeting places in buildings in the very heart of graveyards?

Well, it took a paragraph in Michael Jensen’s YOU:an introduction (mentioned on the Treasure Map 3 below) to show how radical that was in the context of either pagan superstition or Hebrew ritual. For the Christian gospel gives a hope that transcends both:

Interestingly, Christian burial practices became quite distinctive: they buried their dead in the catacombs – in the tunnels under the city – and many in Europe adopted the practice of building their churches in the midst of the tombstones – in other words, in the centre of what would be unclean for Israel and terrifying for pagans. In these buildings, Christians met in fellowship with those who had ‘fallen asleep’. (You: An Introduction, Matthias Media 2008, p127)

Death no longer has its terrifying hold over us. Because Jesus rose. Which is as apt a thing to think about during Advent as any, I’d have thought! Yet another deep-seated sociological custom which the gospel, and in particular Christ’s resurrection, completely subverted/overturned/transformed. Like the fact that the Christian day is Sunday, not Saturday.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Dec 8 2008

    Wouldn’t meeting among tombs have also made it safer for Christians in a hostile environment? If the pagans were terrified of them, wouldn’t it would flush out pagan spies and make it less likely that the church would get attacked? I just wonder whether the theology or the praxis came first…

    • Dec 8 2008

      Fair point, Dave, and I’d not thought of that. But as ever, it was presumably a combination of the two, since praxis in this case would have hardly been sufficient to overcome such deep-seated taboos (except occasionally and in extremis) had their theology of the life beyond not transformed their thinking.

  2. Dec 8 2008

    That makes sense. I was just speculating, I have no idea about the real history!!


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