Let me sleep when I die


Frieze on a sarcophagus from the Christian catacombs, dated AD 325-350. The woman who died stands at far left, scroll in hand. Next to her two farm animals hover over the infant Christ, then John baptizes Jesus, and Jesus (looking very Roman without a beard!) raises Lazarus.

When my earthly sojourn ends, please say that I died, not that I “passed.” The latter happens to footballs and, well . . . to gas. Aversion to death makes our culture prefer euphemism, but followers of Jesus acknowledge death and resurrection at the center of our faith. We name them, and do not fear the end of our physical lives.

Twenty years ago, I was frustrated to find the Pio Cristiano gallery of Early Christian art at Vatican Museums in Rome repeatedly closed. Finally, I appealed up the museum hierarchy until I got to the office of the general manager, who confirmed that the section again was closed. Politely I declared that I would not leave his office without permission to see that collection. Eventually he picked up the phone, spoke something impatient in Italian, and in came a guard–who took me to the collection!

What I found was marvelous art from early Christian catacombs, from the miles of underground tunnels where believers buried loved ones in shelf-like niches in the walls. After Christians laid a body to rest, they covered the niche with tile or marble plates, which they could decorate with words or sculpture. Wealthy families sometimes buried their deceased in a sarcophagus, or sculpted stone coffin.

Pagan people in Rome normally buried their dead in a necropolis (“city of the dead”), much like usual above-ground burial plots in the West today. But Christians named their burial tunnels cemeteries, Greek for “dormitories”! Burial simply provided a place to sleep until the return of Christ and resurrection.

What a window into Early Christian theology of life and death! Images on Christian tombs mostly illustrate bible stories of salvation, such as Noah in the ark receiving an olive leaf, three Hebrew lads worshiping God in the midst of flames, or Jonah being rescued by and from a big fish. New Testament scenes largely were from the Gospels: Jesus healing the sick, multiplying loaves, restoring sight to the blind, and–most prominently–raising Lazarus from the dead.

Christians lost fear of death, making them bold to care even for pagan neighbors when their own family members put them out on the street to die because they had the plague. Early church leader Dionysius says Christians in AD 260 showed such courage during a devastating plague in Egypt, even if it meant they could become ill from the exposure:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy. . . Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”

Sociologist Rodney Stark believes such acts of compassion, extended both to Christians and pagans, were a significant factor in the growth of the Early Church. Having no fear in the face of death means we, too, can take big risks to share the love of Jesus.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0410 (4)

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Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and travel by vehicle to see more. Note that this tour cannot be a large group, and we are near capacity for registration. Contact TourMagination promptly if you wish to join.   See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/

Giving the knee to Jesus as Lord



On this first-century tomb at Colchester, England, a Roman soldier carries the rod that means he was a centurion. His weapons hang from two belts of the kind that Marcellus removed and threw to the ground to disarm.

American football players protesting racism recently gave the knee instead of standing at attention during a performance of the United States national anthem, triggering a Twitter storm from the president of the country and a cloudburst of editorial commentary. The wave of  athletic protest began when a player named Colin Kaepernick, wanting to call attention to black men dying at the hands of police, knelt in public at pre-game ceremonies.

Kaepernick is a confessing Christian with Bible verses (not ones I would choose) tattooed on his body. A few years ago, he spoke of his commitment to Scripture. Just as each football team “has a thick playbook full of very specific responsibilities,” he said, the “same is true of our ‘playbook’ the Bible.” Kaepernick was raised on stories of Daniel in the lion’s den and Jesus standing before Pilate. He was accustomed to praying as he entered the football stadium, and has made large contributions to international charitable causes. But symbolic protest made him the object of scorn.

The witness of Marcellus

Kaepernick’s costly witness reminds me of Roman centurion Marcellus, who became a Christian while in the Roman army. On July 21, AD 298, Marcellus stood in front of troops he commanded in Morocco, threw down his weapons, and declared, “I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the eternal king. From now I cease to serve your emperors and I despise the worship of your gods of wood and stone, for they are deaf and dumb images.”

The emperor in AD 298 was Diocletian, who shortly would unleash devastating persecution of the church. With his empire restive, Diocletian promoted patriotism by requiring all soldiers to sacrifice to the Roman gods and to honor the emperor on his “divine” birthday as a manifestation of the god Jove.

Marcellus resisted, and faced court martial on October 30, AD 298. The judge asked, “What madness possessed you to throw down the symbols of your military oath and say the things you did? . . . You threw down your weapons?”

“Yes, I did,” the soldier replied. “For it is not fitting that a Christian, who fights for Christ his Lord, should fight for the armies of this world.” Marcellus was beheaded immediately after trial.

A martyr’s grave in Indiana

The medieval church in Europe often placed martyr bones under the altar when they established a cathedral. When University of Notre Dame in Indiana founded a new basilica in 1870, they followed that tradition and acquired the bones of Marcellus, which now rest under the high altar. I pray in the basilica each October to thank God for this saint’s witness.

Kaepernick will not lose his head. But at least for the time being, this gifted athlete appears unemployable. Though their circumstances and motivations are different, I honor the actions of both Marcellus and Kaepernick. Marcellus refused to worship “deaf and dumb images” of gods and emperors. Kaepernick protested politicians and civic leaders being deaf and dumb to racism. May I have the courage like these followers of Jesus to make public, nonviolent witness against idolatry and injustice.

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ******************************************IMG_0410 (4)

Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and see much more. The Gospels will be in our hands, and prayer in our hearts. Interested? See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/