Sunday Morning at St. Hugh's in Idyllwild, California
Alpha Omega | Art for Proper 29B
Revelation 1:8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Alpha and Omega, Fresco from the Catacomb of Commodilla, Late 4th century.
For many of us during youth, a catacomb was imagined to be a place where one might wander into, become lost, and never find a way out. They were thought to be maize-like underground tunnels where secret rituals took place. Early Christians, it was said, hid from Romans in them. Reality is seldom as mysterious as the imagination and although it is conceivable a catacomb could have served as a hiding place, the evidence for this is lacking. The catacombs were burial sites for early Christians living in Rome and the rituals that took place were burial rites. When a Roman died, cremation was the usual practice but Christians buried their dead and believed in the body’s resurrection. The most common image painted on catacomb walls is that of Jesus raising Lazarus. Because space in the city was limited, Christians carved underground burial chambers in soft volcanic rock at the outskirts of Rome.
The catacomb of Commodilla has been of special interest because within it is an underground church built under the direction of Pope Siricius during his reign from 384 to 399 AD. Frescos cover the walls of the church and in the center of the ceiling – surrounded by smaller paintings – is a bust of Christ with the letters Alpha and Omega written on either side. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and are in reference to two statements in the Book of Revelation; “I am the Alpha and Omega, says the Lord God, who is and was and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Rev. 1:8). This concept is stated again in the last chapter of Revelation; “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Rev. 22:13).
This painting is one of the earliest depictions of a bearded Christ. Before this time, paintings were based usually on young males seen in Roman wall paintings and Christ was shown as a beardless youth (as in catacomb images of the Good Shepherd). Many centuries lapsed before Christ was regularly depicted with a beard. The image of a bearded Christ was used regularly first in Eastern Christianity and his features tended to be more Near Eastern. If the beard were removed from this painting, Christ’s face would still look Roman.
In the Greek alphabet, some lowercase letters bear no resemblance to their uppercase counterparts. In the painting of Christ from the catacomb of Commodilla, the Greek letter, “alpha” is written in uppercase and “omega” is in lowercase (like a cursive “w”). An uppercase omega is shaped like a horseshoe with “feet” extending outward from the bottom on each side.
In the latter part of the third century, some of the wealthy Christians chose to be buried in a sarcophagus; a stone coffin. It often was made of marble, carved elaborately with relief sculpture, and was intended to remain above ground. At one time, limestone was used for sarcophagi and it was thought it caused the body to decompose. The Greek word “sarcophagus” means literally, “eating of flesh.” The word “sarcasm” has the same root. To be sarcastic is to “tear the flesh.”