Symbols of Christianity - Ruth den Bok - Sept. 1974, In Holy Array
In the reality of our everyday existence we are surrounded by objects which are valueless in themselves, receiving significance wholly from that which they represent. I am referring of course to the nature of symbols, which everyone will readily recognize as having integral importance in this twentieth century. We perceive symbolic value in our entire monetary system, in the flag we fly, in the wedding band we wear, even in the very words on this page. Of themselves, such objects are insignificant, but they derive life and meaning from that which they represent.
Symbols have played an important role in the life of the believers from the very beginning and the Bible itself has been titled the great source- book of the visual symbols of the Church. Old Testament prophets used symbols to foretell the coming of the Messiah and Old Testament sacrifices were filled with symbolic value. The slain goat or bull on the altar was representative of the sins of Israel and pointed to the sacrifice Christ was to make for us on the Cross. There are numerous other examples, among them the book of Revelations which holds a great deal of symbolism, several O.T. prophecies, and the sacraments which are holy visible signs and seals, given to us to confirm our faith. Jesus Christ himself often spoke in parables and He referred to Himself and was called by many symbolic names, including Chief Cornerstone, Light of the World, Bread of Life, Morning Star and Good Shepherd.
The Church has from its infancy, retained these Biblical symbols, often in the language of art, and has formulated others to represent Biblical teachings and to unify and identify the Christians. The origins and meanings of a few such major symbols will be discussed here. Most contain historical significance, having served to unite the early Christians and to allow a means of inter-group identification, especially vital in times of persecution. Such a time may yet envelop us, prompting a return to the widespread usage of symbols among Christians. However, even in this present age on this North American continent where the freedom to worship still exists, symbols can be meaningful, for they present us with a silent heavenly language and quietly remind us of the presence of God in our midst. The symbols to be discussed are only a very minute part of the wonderful world of signs which God has given us in creation, in which each object points to God, our Creator and Sustainer.
The cross has been the chief symbol of the church throughout the ages. Christ said that ". . . he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me," (Matt. 10: 38). Paul, in writing to the Galatians said, "But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ," (Gal. 6:14) and he warns against those who "… live as enemies of the cross of Christ,"
(Phil. 3:18) In its many variations, the cross symbolizes Christ's death on the cross for the remission of our sins and reminds us of the love of God manifested to us through this one sacrifice of His Son. In the cross we see death, but not only death. Looking past the cross, we are confronted with the new life of the resurrection on Easter and we are reminded of our duty to live as people redeemed by the event on the cross.
The Latin Cross is perhaps the simplest and most widely-known cross. Many churches have been built in a cruciform plan (shaped after the Latin cross) and the wearing of crucifixes, introduced as a means of reminding the wearer that he was under the cross of Christ, has long been popular. Unfortunately, to many, if not the majority of Roman Catholics, the wearing of a cross has lost its original meaning and adopted intrinsic significance, even to the point of idolatry. People have become dependent on the symbol itself. However, the fact that a symbol has been soiled and abused by others is no reason for us to abandon it. The cross of Christ dominates our lives and through it we are reconciled to God and called to take up our own crosses and follow our Lord.
The Celtic Cross contains a circle representing eternal life. It is often found in cemeteries, marking graves and it is said to signify that God's children who have died and are no longer with us, are with the Lord.
One of the earliest identifying marks used by followers of Christ was the Anchor Cross. Introduced during the first century, it served the purpose of identification and unity especially during periods of persecution. A Christian seeing this sign drawn on a home or scratched in the dirt or sand, would know that he had a friend and fellow-believer nearby. To non-Christians however, the sign held no significance and so proved a safe and clever method of concealment. The anchor itself was probably derived from Hebrews 6:19 where Christian hope is described as ". . . a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul."
A more recent, though still relatively ancient cross is the Maltese Cross. This form has four arms of equal length, each one indented into the shape of a 'v' at its end. The points at the end of each arm form a total of eight and represent the Beatitudes, (Matt. 5:3-10).
The Huguenot Cross is perhaps the one most common in our Reformed circles, although many of us are not yet aware of its special significance. It is an unusual and beautiful cross and an awareness of its meaning will give, especially to those who wear it, extra opportunities to share their faith with others. The Huguenot Cross is the ancient symbol of recognition among the French Protestants who during the sixteenth century were labeled Huguenots, a name which became to them a title of honor. In the midst of persecution these Christians wore the Huguenot Cross as a sign of their faith. The form of the cross is based on the Maltese Cross but is more intricate than the latter. Between the arms of the cross are four lilies, well-known symbols of purity, joy and light, and commonly related to Easter and the Resurrection. The four hearts, formed by the open spaces between the arms of the cross, signify love and fidelity. Attached to the cross is a dove, familiar symbol of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who is a source of love, guidance and peace to the believers. A well-known spiritual reference to this symbol is the account of Jesus' baptism by John, when the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove. (Matt. 3:16-17) The Huguenot Cross, usage of which is being revived in this twentieth century, is a symbol of our protestant reformed faith and as such is proudly worn and/or utilized by many Christians.
Less well-known variations are the Coptic Cross, formulated from references to the tree of life (Rev. 2:7), and the Budded Cross.
A fairly recent cross, seen mainly today in connection with mission work, is the Cross of Triumph. It is comprised of a Latin cross standing over a globe, a reminder of the mandate that the Gospel must be preached to the ends of the earth, and of the promise that when this has been reached, Christ will return.
The cross, always at the centre of life, our regenerated life, was used by the early Christians to form monograms of Jesus Christ. One of the most common is the Christogram or Chi-Rho, an ancient symbol formed by placing together the Greek letters X and P. The symbol gains its significance from the fact that X and P are the first two letters of Christ's name in Greek.
It is of interest historically, to note that this symbol was visible on the banners of the army of Constantine the Great, the first royal convert to Christianity, when he marched against the Emperor Maxentius.
Beautiful variations of the chi-rho have been portrayed on marriage plaques, invitations and bulletin covers. An example is that of interlocking rings on the christogram or cross. These symbols represent the promise of God to send His people His grace and presence through Christ, symbolized by the cross. The intertwined rings signify man and woman made one in Him, a union living under the promise and power of God.
Numerous other symbols exist. One of universal recognition is the star, the star which lights the night sky and which the Bible refers to in foretelling the promised coming of the Messiah. Christ is called, among many names, the Morning Star, (Rev. 22:16). We view the star, naturally, as a symbol of guidance, lighting the way in our lives even as it guided the wise men at Jesus' birth to where He lay. In this century, the six-pointed Jewish 'Star-of-David', long a symbol of Judaism, has come to denote the modern republic of Israel.
The importance of recognizing the true meaning of symbols is reflected today in the flagrant misuse of the so-called peace symbol. Originating with the Nero cross, a cross with arms broken and pointing downwards, this cross became to the early Church a symbol of all that is evil and opposed to the Gospel. In the dark ages it was adopted by the Satanists to mock the teachings of Jesus; in our age, Berrand Russell, famous British philosopher, socialist and anti- Christian, proposed its use to British youthful disarmament demonstrators. Seemingly an innocent little sign of peace, this symbol is closer to the opposite. But, some argue, why not forget its past and give the symbol a new and different meaning. Such a view, however, is naive, for calling an orange a peach does not make it a peach, but is merely a means of deception.
The true cross of Jesus is the one that we should cling to, not Nero's inverted Satanist cross. When, two hundred and fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the cross of Christ replaced Nero's cross on the standards of the Roman Empire, these words were inscribed beneath it: "In hoc signo vince" — under this sign, conquer! The cross can and does conquer men because it is the only power on earth that can effectively change a man's heart, making him a new creature, ready and willing to serve his Maker. "
We should not, in our discussion of symbols, neglect the fish. We see it today, if not on the many forms of jewelry, plaques and bookmarks that bear this mark, then at least on the cover of "In Holy Array" every month. A cleverly designed secret code, the fish, like the anchor cross, originated in a time of persecution and attempted to speak solely to the Christians. Under persecution by Nero, the early Christians were forced to meet secretly in homes of fellow- believers and in catacombs. A fish marked on a home signified to them that a worship service would take place that evening, while to pagans it indicated a funeral service in progress. The Greek letters for fish held special significance, being the first letters of five Greek words, meaning `Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior'. Explorations of the catacombs reveal that the fish was often drawn on a three-legged table or with a basket of bread and wine on its back, signifying that Christ comes to us in the Holy Supper. Usage of the fish symbol is being greatly revived today.Our lives are daily permeated by a variety of symbols which influence our perception and actions. The symbols here described can be very meaningful to us both individually, and collectively, as members of the body of Christ. They serve the function of uniting us, of providing a means of I.D., and a mark by which the world may recognize us. Yet, although they are important in serving these purposes, some increasing in value according to the marks of the age, we should not rely too heavily nor place an overabundance of stress on these symbols. Whether we outwardly wear the symbol of a cross or fish is not really important. There exists a much better sign, a universal mark that will straddle the ages till Christ's return, -What is this sign?
Christ himself revealed it near the end of His ministry, in the following words:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as 1 have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 14:34-5)"Love and the unity it attests to is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father."' We should praise God with a song in our hearts and on our lips, for the abundant manifestations He has given of Himself expressly and in the wonderful language of symbols and figures, both in creation and in the Holy Scriptures. And let it not be said that we are making " a desert in the name of the Lord",2 but rather, that we bear the mark of the Christian.
1. Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian, Intervarsity Press,Illinois.
2. "Lament", by E. Paterson, The Mark of the Christian, Intervarsity Press,Illinois, 1971