Christian symbols are more than just some kind of badge which people display or wear to show that they are members of the in Crowd. Christian symbols and their meanings are not just superficial, they often operate at the subconscious level, which focuses and concentrates the faith of the worshiper.
The most important Christian symbol, although not the earliest, is of course the simple Latin cross. It seems strange perhaps for a religion to have as its central motif an instrument of torture, but Christians worship one who was both fully human and fully divine. Catholics almost always venerate the cross in the form of a crucifix, in other words, a cross which carries the body of Christ. In Protestant churches, although the crucifix is used, for example in processions, the cross is in general shown just as an empty cross, which symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
The cross also symbolizes earth, being the horizontal bar, and heaven, being the upright post. The cross therefore combines earth and heaven. It also reminds Christians of Jesus stretching out his arms to embrace the world. Christians mark themselves with the sign of the cross when praying, at significant moments during a church service, and as a gesture of protection.
The Latin cross has very ancient origins, and was possibly adopted from pagans who worshiped Thor. Alternatively because it can represent the four points of the compass, it is sometimes thought to be the symbol of other earth gods.
The Latin cross is the plain and simple cross, but there are many other versions of the cross. For example, the Celtic cross has a circle around the juncture of the two elements of the cross. This symbol has possible pagan origins, but in modern times the circle is read as representing the whole world.
The Tau cross is possibly of more ancient origin that the Latin cross and takes the form of a simple capital “T”. St Francis of Assisi had this cross as his personal symbol of devotion, and you can see this form of cross worn by Franciscans and followers of Francis and Clare to this day. It has a rather complex origin, T being the last letter of the alphabet in Hebrew, and it is written as our modern day capital T in the Greek alphabet.
In the early church Ichthus, or the fish, was the most commonly used symbol for Christians. It is believed to have originated in the seaport of Alexandria, Egypt, and derives from the Greek. The Greek word for fish is spelled with letters which are an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”.
The fish symbol can be found on very early Christian tombs and wall paintings, and is thought to have been used as a secret sign of recognition among the then persecuted community. In modern times, it is popular as a car decal or bumper sticker.
The Lamb is a common symbol representing Christ, the Lamb of God, the pure one. This relates to the Jewish practice of sacrificing a lamb at Passover, a lamb which should be pure white and have no physical flaw. Thus Jesus Christ is equated with a pure and flawless sacrifice.
In Christian services, the invocation, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us” is frequently used.
Images of shepherds and sheep abound in the Bible, reflecting the pastoral society of the times. In fact shepherds were regarded as very low class, so when Jesus describes himself as a shepherd, or the Lamb of God, that would be seen as being very self-deprecating and even transgressive.
When the angels appeared to shepherds, they were appearing to people considered among the least worthy of society. Sheep were of course also considered unclean until they were purified by ritual.
The Rose is a beautiful symbol of the Virgin Mary, the faith of the Church, the seal of the confessional, penance, and of martyrdom.
When five roses are grouped together in Christian iconography, this is seen as a symbol of the five sacred wounds which Christ received at his crucifixion. Rose buds are often associated with Mary, depicting her youth, purity, fragrance, beauty, and virginity.
The Dove is frequently depicted hovering above the head of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary, especially in relation to the baptism of Jesus. In these depictions, the white bird represents the Holy Spirit descending on earth.
The dove has Old Testament connections, as it is the dove which returns to Noah’s ark carrying an olive branch, showing that the waters had receded from the land.
The dove is frequently used as a symbol of peace and of hope, both in Christianity and in the secular world.
The Palm Branch
Early Christians are often depicted holding a palm branch, which symbolizes the victory of the followers of Christ, over enemies of the soul. This symbol is taken from the Palm Sunday festival, which celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, as according to John’s gospel, “The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him”.
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
These are 6 Christian symbols and their meanings, but there are more which are also significant.
Christian martyrs have clung to Christian symbols, refusing to discard them, and have sometimes been identified by the possession of such symbols, especially the cross.