Copyright © Edward Riojas.
Symbols may not be
reproduced for any reason.
Copyright © Edward Riojas
It started with the Chi-Rho.
Someone once asked me if it was a secret, Masonic symbol. Another person wondered why we use such a “catholic” symbol. Sigh.
We have confessional creeds and explanations of doctrine and volumes written on what we believe, but to my knowledge there are no classes dealing with the stuff that often confronts us in the church sanctuary. Christian symbolism isn’t necessary for salvation, so it often gets ignored. Ignorance of those things that teach, however, can be a bad thing.
Please consider this, therefore, a primer of the very basics of Christian symbolism. Whether you are as dumb as a rock or you have a list of credentials longer than my arm, chances are you will learn a little something about the stuff you stare at every Sunday.
The few images considered here are but a tiny fraction of the thousand or so symbols I’ve collected and drawn for a [very] back-burner book project on the subject. Stay tuned – it might even get published before the Lord’s return.
The Cross: You might be surprised that this is NOT the oldest symbol of the Christian Church – not even by a long shot. Why? It was an image of public torture and death. The cross was ugly and embarrassing. It took a couple of hundred years after Christ ascended before the Church began using it.
The Crucifix: It took another hundred years or so after the cross gained popularity before an image of a dead or dying Christ was even considered. Knowing this adds immense power to St. Paul’s boasting in the cross.
The Good Shepherd: Now this symbol is OLD. It actually pre-dates Christ (which isn't, of course, possible). The 23rd Psalm was known by the Jews, and images of pastoral David were popular in their culture. Images of a shepherd deity were also known in the Roman empire. It became an easy step, therefore, to use a very similar image to represent the Lord, Jesus Christ in the role of the Good Shepherd.
Chi-Rho (XP): Simply put, it’s a Greek abbreviation for “Christ.” We might write it in English as “CR.”
I-H-S: There must be millions of brass altar crosses out there with this little thing attached. It is a Latinized version of the Greek abbreviation for “Jesus.” Some have stretched it to mean “Jesus, Savior of Men.” Others have assigned its use to off-shoots of Roman Catholicism, but that’s pushing it. Confused? Good, because you might also see the variation “I-H-C,” as depicted here.
The Tri-radiant Nimbus: Now we’re getting fancy. A special device was needed to differentiate the Lord from the rest of Christendom when depicted together in art, so the three-rayed halo was employed. No, it is NOT a cross. It is reserved for depictions of The Father, and of The Son, and of The Holy Ghost. See how they did that?
Nimbus: A halo (or nimbus) is a very old pagan device. Christians, being clever enough to re-purpose garbage to their own advantage, began using halos to identify Christians in artwork. To my knowledge, I don’t have one hovering behind my head, and I’ve never painted one on a self-portrait. But once I leave this world, if you would be so kind...