Week of October 25, 1999
Why do Christians use symbols?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
We seem to use many symbols which I don't really understand. Why do we use symbols and what is their meaning, for example, the fish and others?
Symbols are images of easily recognized objects, animals or letters which immediately and clearly convey the message intended. Therefore, they speak more directly than a description might to the intellect and to the heart of the person seeing them.
There are many symbols which are a part of Christianity and of everyday life today and always have been.
The use of the fish by early Christians came from the Greek word for fish "IXOYS" where each of the letters is the initial for one of the titles used for Jesus: I for Jesus, X for Christos, O for Theou/God's, Y for uios/Son, S for Soter/Saviour. It reads: Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour.
Simply using the image of the fish conveyed the same meaning as the words. It is possible that, in time of persecution, this was a secret identification code for early Christians.
Another symbol with which we are familiar is a monogram consisting of the letters IHS which was an abbreviation of the Greek word for Jesus. Christians have often inserted a cross above the H.
Another is the Chi-rho monogram consisting of the chi (X) and rho (P), the first two letters of the name of Christ, imposed one on the other and used in early Christian art from the fourth century.
It was often used in association with the symbol for God, the Alpha (L) and omega (W) or (w), the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet indicating that God is the beginning and end of all things as Revelation 22:13 says: "I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end."
Everyone is familiar with the dove as a symbol for peace. This symbol represents the dove that came to Noah's ark with a newly-plucked olive branch indicating that vegetation was re-growing after the devastating flood and therefore, it was safe to leave the ark. In other words, peace between God and humanity was re-established.
From the Gospel text calling Jesus the lamb of God, early Christians adopted a lamb juxtaposed with a cross to represent the crucifixion, in addition to other symbols with a lamb.
In a similar way, a pelican piercing its breast to feed its young with its own blood became the symbol of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.