Christianity encompasses many Christian denominations, all with a common religious belief (that Jesus was both God and man, born to redeem mankind). Christian religious symbols are numerous, too. Just the symbols of scripture like; heaven, hell, and last judgment are plentiful in Christian literature.
The definition I am using as a Christian religious symbolism of religion is from A History of God by Karen Armstrong. “A symbol can be defined as an object or a notion that we can perceive with our senses or grasp with our minds but in which we see something other than itself.” A religious symbol is often imagined from a religion quote. Some symbols are obviously older than the religion, they had to come from somewhere, and that in itself is an interesting study of origin and meanings.
The Christian Fish Symbol
Sometimes this symbol is portrayed with the Greek initials “ICHTHYS” which stand for the phrase, “Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior.” The fish image is worldwide, and said to have originated from the pagan religion with the Great Mother Goddess. Imagine early Christians identifying themselves to a stranger by drawing half of an arc in the sand. If the stranger was Christian, he or she would draw the other half, thus identifying himself as a Christian, if not, then no harm was done. The persecutors didn’t have a clue.
Jesus declared to make his disciples (many were fishermen) “fishers of men,” so that may have been a reason for the fish symbol. Also, it is associated with baptism - fish are at home in water.
Palm and Ashes
Easter is the most important Christian holiday, although the calendar traditions vary between Western and Orthodox practitioners. The anticipation of Easter is marked by Palm Sunday, the final Sunday in Lent and the first day of the Holy Week.
The traditional story of Jesus entering Jerusalem is symbolized with palms which were plentiful in Jerusalem in that time (and may still be). The people greeted him with palm fronds. Many Christians are given a palm to hold during the Palm Sunday mass. Other plants are used if palms are hard to come by in certain locations. For example, in Colorado I have attended a Palm Sunday mass and been handed a sage branch. Palms are not common to Colorado!
Did you ever wonder about the ashes received on foreheads of believers on Ash Wednesday? The ashes are from the palms carried in the previous year’s Palm Sunday ritual. They are a reminder of the betrayal and abandonment of Jesus, and of his suffering.
Some Christian denominations believe in a triune God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are genderless, yet the triune God is both 3 and 1. The dove is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The belief is that the Spirit of God (symbolized by a dove) descended upon Jesus at his baptism.
The Catholic Christian dove symbol has rich meaning: The dove is a symbol of innocence, gentleness, and affection; also, in art and in the Scriptures, the typical symbol of the Holy Ghost. God sent his spirit in the form of a dove to gather mankind into his church. The meanings of the colors of the dove are:
- Red Dove - because Christ redeemed man with his blood
- Speckled Dove symbolising the diversity of the twelve prophets
- White Dove symbolising innocence, gentleness and peace
A dove returned to Noah with an olive branch to let him know that the flood waters had abated, and that the Great Flood of God's judgment was over: ‘Gen. 8:10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth.’ (Dove Christian Symbol)
The Six Pointed Star
The lovely image of a six pointed star in Christian symbolism stands for the six days of creation. It also stands for 6 attributes of God; power, mercy, love, justice, wisdom and majesty. This symbol is often seen on top of Christmas trees, and it may have something to do with the star that the 3 wise men followed to find Jesus.
As mentioned previously, the triune God is one of three (Father, Son , and Holy Spirit). A medieval style Shield of the Trinity has the words inscribed on it in Latin. Pater means Father, Filius means Son, and Spiritus Sanctus means Holy Spirit. Deus is God, and Est means is. This symbol has a long history, and thankfully it represents a complex belief quite simply.
“Although Christians call themselves monotheists, some outsiders see at least a hint of polytheism in this belief. (As one author put it, the persons of the Trinity are “triplets perched on the fence between polytheism and monotheism.”) Unitarianism, which came to the United states from England in the late eighteenth century, rejects Trinitarianism on the grounds that this doctrine, which was first codified in the Council of Constantinople in 381, cannot be found in the bible.” (Religious Literacy , Prothero, pg 288).
A most immediate image from the cross is suffering. This has been tied in with Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross. He believed that suffering and the cross is where God is found.
The cross is also called the crucifix, and it is at the head of the Rosary beads, common to the Catholic church. One is supposed to “make the sign of the cross” with the crucifix to begin the rosary.
The sign of the cross is made by a hand motion using either 2 or 3 fingers tracing the cross (in the air) or on ones’ forehead, then right shoulder to left shoulder - never left to right. A mental or outspoken recitation is often accompanied with the movement. Often it is a blessing from a priest.
This widely used symbol represents and memorializes Christ’s death on the cross.
As there are numerous Christian denominations, there are numerous Christian crosses, each adding a bit of meaning to the ones listed above.
The plainest and most simple is the Latin cross that symbolizes Christ’s suffering.
The cross of Calvary has 3 steps on the bottom which represent Calvary hill, and faith, hope and love.
The budded cross (picture a plain Latin cross with buds at each tip) is very common and it represents the Trinity.
photo credits - wikimedia commons
Fish with Greek initials, and Shield of the Trinity