Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgy Reflections
Ancient symbols

by Father Jan Larson

(From the June 14, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson There are a number of visual symbols that have been with the Church so long that no one really knows their origin. Some of these symbols have been a part of the decoration of our churches and liturgical vestments for as long as we can remember. Yet, as familiar as they are, most Catholics would have difficulty explaining what they mean.

Perhaps one of the most familiar is the Chi Rho, appearing most often as the letter X superimposed over the letter P. Like most of these monogram symbols, these are initials that stand for Greek words, not English words. Their origins are traced back to the earliest centuries when Greek was the common language of Christians. The Chi and the Rho (Ch and R) are the first two Greek letters in the word for Christ.

Another familiar symbol is the IHS (Iota Eta Sigma), appearing on the decoration of older churches, altars and vestments. These are the first three letters in the Greek six-letter word for Jesus. Other interpretations of these characters are only pious fancies.

The Alpha and the Omega, written as a capital A and what appears to be a rounded W or an upside down U, are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, reminding us that Christ is the beginning and the end of everything.

The fish is a symbol that appears on everything from altars to bumper stickers and lapel pins. It is meant to remind us of the Greek words for the phrase, “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” The first letters in these Greek words, when put together (I, Ch, Th, U and S) happen to spell the Greek word for fish (Ichthus). From earliest times, this symbolic device, known as an acrostic, was used as a sort of coded badge of identity for Christians.

Another familiar set of letters is the INRI found on the top of crucifixes. These are initials for the Latin words, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Scriptures tell us that this inscription, written in Latin, Hebrew, and in Greek, was nailed to the cross of Jesus. The INRI on contemporary crucifixes is merely an artistic abbreviation for these words that were written out in the three languages.

The ancient Greek symbols are not found as often in contemporary church art and design. There are two reasons for this. First, today’s artists and designers are encouraged to draw out the natural beauty of an object, rather than applying beautiful decoration to it. For example, the natural beauty of a wood or marble altar can make it the worthy and noble piece of furniture that it is supposed to be. It can stand on its own merits, and does not need other symbols and decoration attached to it. Likewise, a vestment ought to be seen as an object of beauty because of its color, form, texture and design, rather from the slogans and symbols that might be sewn onto it. Secondly, the ancient Greek symbols are not as popular today because they tend to be too complex. They are, quite literally, “Greek” to too many people. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy teaches that our liturgical rites “should be-within the people’s powers of comprehension and as a rule not require much explanation.”

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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