One of the ancient world’s most important cities was Megiddo, dating from at least the 5th century B.C. Its location on a hill overlooking the Valley of Jezreel in modern day Israel gave it strategic importance in history. In former days, it controlled the passage between two military and trade routes. One connected Egypt to the lands of modern day Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. The other connected Jerusalem to modern day Lebanon that opened the way by sea, in ancient times, to Italy and Spain.
Throughout history, battles were fought and blood shed for control of Megiddo. In fact, the New Testament speaks of Megiddo as the place of the final battle at the end of the world (Rev 16:16). The name “Armageddon” simply means Har Megiddo or the hill of Megiddo. Today, ancient Megiddo is a peaceful archaeological site.
However, a recent discovery is now disturbing the dust that has settled on this site. Nearby there is a prison. In 2005, Israeli authorities wanted to replace a tent encampment for prisoners with detention cells. Since the area is so important for archaeological finds, the Antiquities Authority required that a salvage dig be carried out before any new building took place. In the course of that dig, two prisoners came across an amazing find. They unearthed the remnants of a 3rd century A.D. church. This church easily ranks as one of the oldest in Christendom.
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., there was a large camp of Roman soldiers near Megiddo. In those days, Roman soldiers came in contact with religions from all parts of the world. The Roman army was a fertile field for new converts. Undoubtedly, in this period before Christianity had become a legal religion, the army, located at Megiddo, numbered some newly converted Christian soldiers among its ranks. The recently discovered church was actually part of a larger building complex that included living quarters for Roman officers, ritual baths, and a bakery.
A most significant find in this dig is a 580-square-foot mosaic with the image of a fish, one of the earliest Christian symbols. The mosaic bears the Greek inscription that reads “The god-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” This mosaic is important for two reasons.
First, not only is its inscription the earliest anywhere mentioning Jesus Christ but, more amazingly it refers to Jesus as God. In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown had made the claim that Jesus was merely a moral teacher. He asserted that only later, at the famous 4th century Council of Nicaea, did Jesus’ followers, at the instigation of the Roman emperor Constantine, elevate Jesus to the status of divinity. Clearly, this inscription shows that Christians were already confessing Jesus as divine a century before that council. The divinity of Jesus is the very foundation of the Christian faith.
Second, the inscription mentions a table donated for the gathering of Christians in this church. When Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century A.D., public church buildings were constructed and the Eucharist was celebrated at an altar. The altar made clear that the Eucharist was a true sacrifice. But, before this, the first Christians gathered at table to celebrate what Jesus had done at the Last Supper. In fact, 1 Cor 11:23-34, which actually predates the writing of the gospels, gives witness to this gathering of Christians at table to celebrate the Eucharist. Now, for the first time, we have objective archaeological evidence of this at Megiddo.
Thus, both the literary evidence of the New Testament and modern archaeology confirm that Christians have come together for the Eucharist from the very beginning of the Church. This is profoundly significant. Being a Christian has always meant more than just one’s own personal belief and devotion. To be Christian means to be part of the Church gathered together for the Eucharist.
Pope Francis has clearly enunciated this basic truth of faith. At a time when many deem religion to be a private matter and do not see Sunday Mass as important, the Holy Father has recalled us back to the basics. Being a Christian and gathering with other Christians for the Eucharist cannot be separated. “A Christian is not a monad, off somewhere alone. No, he belongs to a people, to the Church…A Christian without the Church is … not a reality… A Christian without the Church is incomprehensible: It is a thing of the laboratory, an artificial thing, a thing that cannot give life…The Christian is always a woman, a man of the Eucharist” (Pope Francis, May 15, 2014 homily at Mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae).
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.