A Basic Introduction to Christian Symbols

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Introduction: A Basic Introduction to Christian Symbols

About: I miss the days when magazines like Popular Mechanics had all sorts of DIY projects for making and repairing just about everything. I am enjoying posting things I have learned and done since I got my first ...

Easter is coming soon and you will see various symbols related to it. One of the most frequent is the Easter egg. Christians adopted the egg as a symbol of Jesus' resurrection from the dead very early. As the egg's shell appears lifeless and a live chick comes out of it, so also the sealed tomb broke open and Jesus emerged alive.

The eggs are colorfully decorated as an expression of joy at the resurrection and the confident hope it gives Christians that they, too, shall rise.

Not only will you see various Christian symbols in churches; but you will also see them on greeting cards, decorations, jewelry, and on gravestones in cemeteries. It helps to be a bit familiar with Christian symbols and their meaning.

(The images used in this Instructable are from Google Images.)

Step 1: Some Easter Symbols Are Not Christian

The familiar Easter bunny is not a Christian symbol. For Christians Easter is properly "the Festival of Our Lord's Resurrection from the Dead," but that is a mouthful and Christians usually just say 'Easter.' The word "Easter" properly refers to springtime, fertility, and new life associated with the passing of the deadness of winter and the rejuvenation of the earth. Rabbits multiply rapidly and the Easter bunny is really a symbol of fertility. Bunnies and fertility have more in common with a pagan worship of the earth than they do with a Christian celebration of Easter.

Step 2: Another Symbol of Easter

The butterfly is also a Christian symbol of the resurrection of Jesus. A cocoon appears lifeless, and yet a beautiful butterfly emerges alive.

Step 3: Those Shoes With the Swoosh Insignia

Sometimes the image you see below is superimposed over a butterfly. It is a simple Greek cross (arms of equal length) with the letters for the Greek word meaning "victory" or "conqueror." The famous running shoe with the swoosh uses the same word in its name, but because the Greek alphabet does not readily and completely come over into the alphabet we use in English and many other languages, some letters are represented differently. So, some spell it Nike and others spell it Nika. It is the same word, however.

Nika is used in the Greek New Testament, particularly at Romans 8:37, which says, "We are more than conquerors through Christ Who loved us."

Step 4: A Variation on NIKA

Below is a variation on the NIKA symbol. The letters in the top half of the graphic represent "Jesus" and "Christ." The Greek alphabet has no "J", but uses an "I" with a "Y" sound. Jesus is Yesus. The "C" at the end is one way Greek speaking people have written an "S" over the centuries. The tilde over the two letters represents an abbreviation for whatever other letters come between the first and last letters of a word. Some early handwritten manuscripts of the Greek New Testament also make use of this device, especially for some very common words. The second set of letters looks like an "X" and a "C" (S). The "X" is the Greek letter chi. It has a "CH" sound. It is the first letter in the word "Christ." You can guess the symbol means "Jesus Christ - Conqueror".

Step 5: The Fish

Someone who studies fish is an ichthiologist or, more properly, ichthyologist. "Ichtys" is the Greek word for 'fish.' You have probably seen the outline of a fish on someone's automobile bumper. Maybe it had the Greek letters inside it as you see in the graphic below.

The Greek letters are (left to right) iota-chi-theta-upsilon-sigma. While they spell the Greek word 'fish,' they also serve as an acrostic for the Greek words that mean "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior."

During years of hard persecution Christians used the fish symbol as a sign of recognition among each other. While talking with someone in the outdoors, a Christian could idly make an arc in the dirt. If the other person were a Christian, he could make a second arc to complete the image of a fish. It was something non-Christians did not know and was a safe way to identify oneself without risking arrest and persecution.

Step 6: I - H - S ?

This is a common and frequent symbol for 'Jesus.' As you might guess, the letters are Greek because Greek was the common language for the first centuries of Christendom. In this case, the "S" appears as we would write it. You already learned about the "I". What appears to be an "H" or "h" is actually an eta. It is a vowel with a sound like a long "A" in English. It is the second letter in the name "Jesus."

Step 7: Chi Rho

To us this looks like a "P" and an "X". You already know that the "X" is a chi, is the first letter in the Greek spelling of 'Christ,' and has a "CH" sound. The "P" is a rho. It has an "R" sound and is the second letter in the Greek spelling of 'Christ.' The graphic shows three variations on a Chi Rho symbol. You may see this on banners, on altars, on clerical vestments, and on jewelry.

Step 8: Alpha and Omega

The alpha and the omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. In order to say He is everything, Jesus said in the Book of Revelation that He is the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega.

Once I was in someone's home. It was during the 1970s in the era of super graphics when people painted wild bands of color on their walls and ceilings. My hostess had a couple of broad bands of color that raced around her living room and down a hallway. There were some butterflies on the ceiling, too. At the end of the hallway were the letters A and Z. After a few minutes I had to ask her if the A and the Z represented an alpha and an omega, and if the butterflies represented Jesus' resurrection from the dead. She smiled and said they did. It was her way of provoking a conversation that would allow her to talk about Jesus and what He means to her.

Step 9: INRI

The letters INRI are not Greek, but Latin. It was one of the three languages Pilate used when he placed the charges against Jesus above Him on the cross. It means, "Jesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum" or "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." You will often see it on altars, perhaps in cemeteries.

Step 10: The Anchor

For some reason, a lot of nautical terminology found its way into Christian things very early. The main body of the church is the nave, which is a term for the body of a ship. The image of an anchor lends itself to incorporating a cross, long a Christian symbol because in the New Testament St. Paul often refers to the whole Christian Gospel with one word: the cross. ("The preaching of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." and so on.) The anchor was chosen to be a symbol of hope. In this life, Christ is the anchor that gives us a footing amid the vagaries of life.

Step 11: Latin Cross

The cross most familiar to us from jewelry, church steeples, signs, and everything else is a Latin cross. The Greek cross was already mentioned in Step Three. This cross is made from antique nails. It is a replica of the Coventry Cross. When the Cathedral at Coventry (begun in the Thirteenth Century) was bombed and burned during the Coventry Blitz of World War II, people found iron nails from a roof beam. They made a cross with some of them. The Latin cross fits our imagination of what a cross would be from the description in the Four Gospels.

Step 12: The Jerusalem Cross

The Jerusalem Cross has two interpretations as I learned them. It has a history going back to the Crusades. The first interpretation is that the five crosses represent the five wounds of Christ. The second is that they represent the Gospel going from Jerusalem out to the four corners of the world. See my Instructable: https://www.instructables.com/id/Cut_Nail_Jerusalem_Pectoral_or_Wall_Cross/

Step 13: Christ the Lamb

The Gospel of John describes Jesus as the Lamb of God Whose blood takes away the sin of the world. In Revelation John describes Jesus as the lamb Who was slain and is alive again, Who is worthy to receive power and honor and glory. The graphic shows the victorious lamb of Revelation.

Step 14: The Trinity

St. Patrick chose the three leafed clover as a symbol of the Christian belief that God is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but yet one God. The graphic shows a triquetra. There are three points or corners, and yet all are tied together in one.

Step 15: The Dove

At Jesus' baptism in the wilderness by John, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus in the form of a dove.

These are the basic Christian symbols you will see whether in a church or not. Once you are aware of them and of their meaning, you will likely notice more of them in your daily travels than you knew before.

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    Although the rabbit isn't technically having anything to do with a Christian Easter...I tell my children that the rabbit bringing treats represents Christ and the sweet blessings that have been given to us by his sacrifice and resurrection. Through his death he atoned for all our sins and through his resurrection, eternal life. (candy being the sweet blessings and bunny being Christ. It's a bit of a stretch but it works.)

    1 reply

    What you do is similar to something Francis X. Weiser described in A Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (book). I do not remember the time frame, but in France children received sweets on Easter morning. They were told the church bells flew to Rome during the night to bring the candies back to individual homes. I do not remember if as much meaning was attached to the candy to make a comparison to the joys of the Resurrection of Jesus or not. A blessed Easter to you.

    I grew up Catholic but was never taught the symbols thank you!

    1 reply

    Thank you for your comment. I had a three year confirmation instruction experience as a young Lutheran Christian. We used a catechism with typical explanatory questions and answers. Line drawings of various symbols were on some pages. The symbols were usually named, but not explained. I studied to become a pastor and did not have a course in symbols, but ran into explanatory materials in hit and miss fashion. I remember buying a thin book or two so I could explain them when asked. I am retired now, but there is enough richness of content in those symbols that they could be the basis for a sermon series. I never did that, or even thought of it before.

    I did have and use a very fine book by a Jesuit priest and scholar. It did a fine job of explaining all sorts of details about Christian festivals, like Easter, Pentecost, and many others. It is "A Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs" by Francis X. Weiser. (Harcourt, Brace, and World. It was published in 1956 and is out of print now. But, it is a good book to have if yu can find one at a fair price.

    Sigh...hello all..I am a pagan..A celtic shaman to be more accurate...and I've read thru all the comments and debates on this instruct able and have come to 3 conclusions:

    1: This is a very good instructive if u take it for exactly what it is...The explanation of why Christianity makes use of specific symbols..Their meanings (for christians) and a basic study of WHY..sadly it seems it's been turned into more of an excuse to attack christians of "stealing" pagan symbology for their own purpose....which brings me to the next point...

    2: christians didn't "steal" anything...or borrow...or however u want to put it...they used a symbol that was familiar to them at the time to express a thought or idea in a way they felt was appropriate for them...just as pagans did as well...The simple shape of a fish was found on cave paintings long before even Wiccan or other pagan religions ever existed...and as for images like the triquetra well it to has origins long before recorded history...and has appeared in many cultures independently of the others throughout history...humans are visual beings...and a symbol helps us learn a concept faster then mere verbal or even written teachings...no one OWN these symbols..so there's no "theft".

    3: What difference would it make anyway? Who cares? I support a christians right to believe or represent that belief how they see fit...just like a TRUE Christian would by the very nature of Christianity. ..respect my right to do the same...so yes I do like this instructable. ..UT gave me insights into Christian symbolism I didn't have before. .and I think I may post one on pagan symbology as well...not as an argument or disagreement with this one..but as a simple and straightforward explanation...Bravo on this instructable!!

    1 reply

    Thank you for your very fair and perceptive comment.

    Phil,

    Today I received an instructables email with this instructable. I took the time to read all the comments. Anytime someone can make others think and become passionate on that thought is a wonderful thing. Amusing people assume underlying reasons for clearly stated purpose. I had forgotten much of what you explained here, thank you for reminding me!

    5 replies

    I am quite puzzled why that notification was sent. I did that Instructable quite some time ago. I have not revised it in any way. I have also received half-a-dozen notifications on the same Instructable someone else did. Meanwhile, two I did in '09 are no longer available for public view, but ended up in my Drafts folder. I am not sure what is happening.

    Thanks for your words of appreciation. In retrospect, had I understood exactly how it is done, I think I would have flagged some of the angry comments as "not nice."

    There was some sort of glitch in an update - some folk had some projects unpredictably unpublished. Just republish, you should be fine.

    Thanks. Someone at Instructables got back to me and said essentially the same thing.

    I think their mail robot wants a raise. I had not seen this instructable anyway, and I enjoyed it.

    I just stumbled across this "ible" and I think it's awesome! My wife and I have prayerfully decided to home-school our kids due to (among other reasons) some of the things being taught in today's public school system. When I read this I thought it would be awesome to incorporate in some of their later studies (preferably after they learn how to read, haha). Thanks!

    1 reply

    Thank you. I wish you well with the home schooling. At the time our kids were in school not many were doing that. Now, I wish at times we had, although I do not know how we would have managed.

    Although some want a totally secular environment, it always amazes me how many times I see something in the public setting that has biblical or Christian roots. Look at place names we all know, like Corpus Christi or San Diego (and all of the other mission stations on the California coast or common expressions, like scapegoat or Judas or good Samaritan. These things are part of our everyday culture and they are unintelligible until one understands the biblical or Christian background of each.

    I am mystified as to why this notice went out now. I published the Instructable a few years ago and have not revised it in any way. I am glad you found it, though.

    That is an interesting deduction to make, and it would make an interesting connection, even if somewhat allegorical. "P" in this case is actually the standard Greek letter "rho," which corresponds to our "R," whether in lower case or in capital. These are simply the first two letters of Christ in Greek. Thank you for looking and for asking.

    What about the scripture that says "No Images"??? How do you respond to people that use that scripture?

    yeah, sorry dude. My little brother went on my computer yesterday, he's in a philosophy class with a liberal teacher, and so he thinks he knows what he's talking about. Ignore those, sorry. I am however going to leave the upside down cross comment, as it is relevant, and you did take care of that in your comment.

    Again, I apologize, and I'm not allowing him near my computer for a while.

    1 reply

    Thank you for the clarification. I am deleting my responses to your brother's posts.

    Also, why not have the upside down cross on here? It's a christian symbol. Of when Peter was crucified upside down cuz he didn't feel worthy of being killed in the same way as jesus. so in more ancient times it was more pious to carry aroud an upside down cross, to show that you weren't worthy of jesus. it's only recently been misconstrued into a satanist symbol, while it's really not.