Friday, January 19, 2018

Flocking to Church

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Not that anyone left the windows open last Sunday, but there are more birds in the sanctuary than one would otherwise expect. Whether depicted in stained-glass, carved in stone, or jutting from a pulpit, birds have for centuries been carriers of symbolism within Christendom. Knowing the difference between species and the sometimes-subtle variations can help in one’s visual understanding of the buildings where worshipers flock.
Eagle lectern.
(St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, England)


The Holy Spirit is most often identified by the image of a dove, but that image sports a couple of important features – or at least it should. The Dove is always shown descending, with its head down. This is to indicate that inspiration comes via the Helper, who is from above. The head is also usually given a tri-radiant halo [that is not a cross] to indicate that it is a Person of the Holy Trinity. There are the odd occasions in sacred art in which the Dove might be seen near the ear of a figure – either near a prophet, indicating Divine inspiration in their writings, or near Mary, the Mother of our Lord, in which case the conception of our Lord is being shown.

When a dove is used to indicate peace, it should always be shown flying horizontally, sans nimbus. Also, it typically carries an olive branch in a reference to the aftermath of the flood. Because this bird often flies off-course into crowds of tie-dyed shirts and love beads, it’s probably wise to avoid this version entirely out of confusion.

One of the earliest winged symbols used in the Church is a bit of a stretch where ornithology is concerned. The Phoenix was borrowed from Greek mythology, but it wasn’t the normal brand of bird. When occasionally used by the Church, it is an identifier of Christ Jesus. According to myth, the bird died by fire, then later arose again from the ashes. It’s questionable origin nonetheless was used by some early Christians to point to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Orlets rug.
(Courtesy, pokrovchurchsupply.com)


Another ornithological symbol with dubious origins is “The Pelican in Her Piety.” The simple fact that the image carries such a title gives a good hint to its Medieval age. The pelican is shown piercing her own breast so that her young may live. The idea that pelicans would sacrifice themselves in such manner made it an endearing symbol of our Lord. Unfortunately, like some other metaphorical images used in Christian symbolism, the self-sacrifice of a pelican is totally unfounded in the natural world.

Eagles play an important role in Church symbolism, but one must take context into account before assigning meaning. Anglican churches, among some other denominations, sometimes have pulpits or lecterns that sport eagles of size enough to accommodate a large bible on the backs of spread wings. They exude a decided “federal” feel, as if talons should clasp bolts of lightning or laurel wreath. In this context, however, the eagles pay homage to the Word of God, for in former days eagles were thought to fly unflinchingly toward the sun. The noble birds were incapable of being blinded – even by the brilliance of the Word itself.
Rooster vane.
(Trinity Church, Veilsdorf, Germany)


In somewhat similar manner, the Orthodox Church sometimes uses the image of a young eagle on a small rug – or “Orlets” – on which a bishop stands while officiating. The eagle flies over the image of a city, indicating the populace over which the bishop presides.

Of course, the eagle is also the symbol of the Evangelist St. John. In this context, its meaning originates from the soaring style of the Gospel writer’s words.

Strangely enough, the barnyard’s entry has somehow taken preeminence on the occasional church building. It is common enough to note when a rooster supersedes all other symbolism – even the cross – on pinnacles of some church spires. It may seem a bit odd, until one unravels its meaning. The rooster became an uncomfortably-humbling reminder to Peter that he had denied Jesus three times. But while the rooster reminds us of the Law and our utter failure in its keeping, it also reminds us of the Gospel, for roosters announce the early morning, and where congregations worship on the eighth day, the rooster reminds us weekly that He is risen indeed.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Before the Cross

"Christ the Good Shepherd."
3rd - 4th century A.D.
(Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome)

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It is extremely difficult for modern Christians to imagine life without the image of the cross. It is so much a part of our thought and being that its absence would be a massive jolt. Not only is it central to our theology, but the image of the cross has been spread into unlikely places like fashion and national branding. It no longer surprises anyone to see it apart from the Church or even connected to its enemies. Yet the image of the cross was not widely used in the early Church – if it was used at all.

Displaying the cross for early Christians would be very much akin to us using images of an electric chair or a gas chamber. It would be inappropriate. It would be scandalous. The question must then be asked: What images DID the early Church embrace?

The idea that the good, pious people of the Church never had “graven” images is just silly. No one overreacted to the Law in such manner – that idea came much later when folks decided they probably should have scruples and insulated themselves from breaking commandments.

Beginning with the Temple in Jerusalem, the decorative arts played a large role among the Israelites. One need only look at early Jewish manuscripts to see the opulence given to sacred writings. And, yes, they used images beyond flowers and pomegranates.

But Jerusalem was not a sealed vacuum when Jesus Christ began His ministry. The Romans were in control. There were also subtle influences from other cultures that brushed up against Israel. Indeed, Israel had been force-fed a nasty diet of Babylonian culture, which probably filtered down through the generations. And Rome borrowed much from Greece. This cultural cocktail had influence on at least one of the earliest Christian images – The Good Shepherd.

One of Israel’s great heroes was King David and, although he was most often depicted regally, his roots as a faithful shepherd were equally lauded. Given the sins of his life, it was also natural to prefer thoughts the of future king as an unadulterated youth among gentle sheep.
"Hermes Kriophoros" Roman copy.
(Museo Barracco di Scultura Antica, Rome)


However, the Jewish nation was not the only one familiar with shepherds. Sheep were pretty much a part of the landscape wherever one went, including the Apennine Peninsula. The mythology of Rome – and Greece, by extension – included gods to suit every interest under the sun. Hermes Kriophoros (“Ram-bearer”) was a figure that commemorated a sacrificial event in Greek mythology. It didn’t have anything to do with shepherding, but the pose of the image, especially in Roman copies, is eerily familiar to our modern eyes.

While the disparate Judaic and mythological figures had no influence on the Christian idea of The Good Shepherd, their similar images alone retained a high degree of familiarity, which can be influence enough.

Perhaps the biggest argument in favor of outside influence is the fact that the earliest images of The Good Shepherd do not show a bearded shepherd. They are not renderings of Jesus. The figure is always a young shepherd – not a young carpenter. They rarely sport halos. In fact, the only indication that these are symbols of Christ Jesus is the context of their location. It would be many years later that a tri-radiant nimbus was added to images of The Good Shepherd, indicating that He is a Person of the Holy Trinity.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Raising Cain

"Cain" Fernand Cormon. 1880. (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)


Copyright © Edward Riojas

The footnote in my study bible simply says "...the mark was never explained and is not important." It may be true that no explanation was ever given, but removing its importance seems an overstep.

I am referring, of course, to the mark placed on Cain.

The account of Cain and Abel overflows with tragedy. It contains so much horror of the Fall that some details appear trivial by comparison, and therefore are relegated to a position of less importance. Such is the case with the mark on Cain, given so that others would not dare kill him. God‘s mark of warning has, however, inspired some interesting theories.

The earliest recorded opinions are from Jewish scholars, who offer little consensus. One suggested that a single Hebrew character from the tetragrammaton – the four letters forming the Name of God – was indelibly placed on Cain’s forehead. Another taught it was indeed a Hebrew character on either Cain’s head or arm, but did not indicate which of the 22 it was. Yet another scholar boldly claimed it was the Hebrew letter “Waw.” Of course, an even earlier Jewish scholar went on his own tangent and explained that Cain grew a single horn out of his forehead. As if that would keep others from adding a trophy to their man-caves.

The Middle Ages produced suggestions of a different kind, which eventually morphed into some rather unsavory ideas. Different scenarios emerged suggesting God made Cain’s face black – one theory included a pummeling with hail – although Cain was not racially changed. That little detail, it seems, was simply too tempting.

Eventually, different groups caved into the notion that Cain’s sin of murder lead to the creation of a new race, and the ensuing genie has refused to go back into the bottle. Some Protestant groups latched onto the idea. Southern Baptists, in particular, used it as an argument for slavery leading up to the Civil War. Not wanting to miss the square-wheeled bandwagon, Latter Day Saints joined in. They might have raised an eyebrow or two when they claimed Native Americans were of Israelite ancestry, but they didn’t look so odd with the claim that all blacks descended from Cain. But much more than simple color, it was believed they also inherited Cain’s curse. Some stigmas are indeed hard to erase.

Others within the Church suggest the mark was a cross, although such a prophetic sign would mean little, if anything, to the first inhabitants who, according to Cain’s lament, had notion enough to kill Cain for the murder. One must wonder, however, what singular, horrifying tattoo would scream “Don’t even touch me.” Perhaps interwoven Seraphim with flaming swords. Perhaps even a glowing reflection of the face of God. Doubtless such a sight would not be welcomed by people reeling from the Fall and feeling too keenly the effects of sin. Such shunning would cause Cain to be a wanderer without a home for the rest of his sojourn on earth.

On the other side of Paradise we will someday understand the importance of Cain’s mark, but for now ignorance will have to suffice. Even in the tragedy of Cain and Abel, however, there seems a thread of prophecy that points to the Savior and His love for us. In Holy Baptism we have been indelibly marked by Christ Jesus, not as protection against mortal danger but as a promise of immortality. We are His. We sojourn this side of Eternity as foreigners and strangers, but are given a foretaste of our heavenly home and its banquet in the Lord's Supper. We shun the world and its brokenness, hold fast to the Word, and look beyond the grave to our true home, where God Himself has marked our names in the palm of His hand.