Cross Purposes with Christian Symbols

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For many people the crucifix is a rather bizarre symbol to have as the primary representation of the Christian faith. As an ancient tool of torture and execution having a cross represent your religion is like having a hangman’s noose or electric chair or even a machete or AK47 assault rifle symbolising your faith.

But the cross that adorns many churches in western Christianity wasn’t the symbol of choice for the early church. Among the symbols used by the early Christian community was that of a fish. The first letter of each of the words in the statement “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” spells out the Greek word for “fish” and so the early church used the simple fish symbol to communicate what they believed.

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The five letters of a profession of faith in Christ spell out the word for ‘fish” in Greek (ichthys)

 

Another symbol used in the first few centuries was “Chi Rho”. The first two letters in the word “Christ” in the Greek alphabet is what looks like an ‘X’ (or “Chi” as pronounced by the Greeks) and what looks a ‘P’ (or “Rho”). Combining these two letters to produce a monogram it had widespread use in ancient Christianity. It was this monogram Roman emperor Constantine was said to have dreamt about before placing it on his soldiers’ weapons and flags and winning a famous battle in 312AD.

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The “Chi Rho” symbol carved into the wall at the ancient catacombs of San Callisto in Rome

A visit to the catacombs of Rome where early Christians were buried in labyrinth-like underground tunnels reveal a variety of symbols the early church employed. It may surprise some that well before the cross we know today believers used an anchor to symbolise their faith. Perhaps it came from Paul’s writings – “This hope we have in Christ is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls” (Hebrews 6:19) – and so the anchor symbol came to embody the strength, steadfastness, and calmness that comes from a belief in a risen saviour.

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The christian catacombs of San Callisto in Rome show a variety of symbols the early Christians used to identify their faith before the cross (as we know it today) became the primary icon

While symbols and icons for Christianity have changed over the last two thousand years the best symbol of faith in Christ has always been a sincere, gracious, and humble follower of the risen Saviour. So rather than wearing a cross around your neck or pinning it to a piece of your clothing to communicate your faith instead Jesus says to us today: “Love one another – and by this sign the world will know you follow me” (John 13:35)

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