If you attend worship this morning, your church is likely celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. Rather than reading about Jesus as a child as we typically do on Sundays in the Christmas season, we are back in the Bethlehem stable. Today’s gospel describe the shepherds arriving to share the angels’ message with Mary and Joseph, Mary treasures their words then the shepherds return home glorifying God, and eight days later, Jesus is circumcised.
As you prepare for worship, whether it’s today or a future Sunday, I invite you to take a few moments to consider some of the symbols we use for Jesus in our church buildings. Often, they are Greek letters embroidered on vestments or set into stained glass windows. And always, their meaning is what I’m most frequently asked about by church members.
“What do those letters mean?”
Most of the letters are Christograms, literally Christ Monograms. To understand them it helps knowing the Greek alphabet. It’s been 19 years since my last Greek class in seminary, and nearly every single word I learned has been forgotten. Thankfully though I can still read (most of) the alphabet. Many Greek letters look like English letters, however they are often pronounced differently. For example, the Greek letter “X” is pronounced like the English word “key” and the Greek letter “P” looks like an English letter, yet it is the Greek “R,” or “rho.” Sometimes Christograms are taken directly from Greek letters, other times they are transliterated to make sense for English speakers.
The most common Christogram I see at church, embroidered on palls and paraments, is IHS. It represents the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek—ΙΗΣΟΥΣ. But like so many symbols in the church, its meaning evolved over time. Sometimes the Roman Catholic Church interprets IHS as meaning Iesus Hominum Salvator (“Jesus, Savior of Humankind,” in Latin). A church member once told me that he learned in his church that IHS stood for “In His Service.”
Chi Rho – Labarum
Emperor Constantine is credited with creating this symbol of Jesus’ name in the early fourth century. It’s unclear if he dreamed the symbol or saw it in a vision, but it comes from combining the first two Greek letters of the word “Christ” Χριστός: Chi (χ) and Rho (ρ). He then had it painted on his soldiers’ shields before marching into battle outside of Rome. Constantine attributed his victory to Christ’s supporting his decision to display the Labarum.
This Christogram came up a lot in my church’s Advent formation series on iconography. ICXC is an abbreviation of the Greek words of Jesus Christ, specifically the first and last letters of each word: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ or “IHCOYC XPICTOC”. This is one of those transliterated names. The Greek letter Sigma looks more like a C than the S, so we get ICXC rather than ISXS. On icons, these four letters are usually divided up so that the IC appears on one side of Jesus and XC on the other. In some icons a line or mark of some kind appears above the letters to indicate that it’s a sacred name.
ICXC is sometimes paired with images of the “Christian fish” known as ichthys. Ichthys is simply the Greek word for fish, but as early as the first century, Christians created an acronym for it: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.)
These letters were inscribed on the sign that hung over Jesus’ head when he was crucified. It’s short for the Latin phrase Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum, meaning, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Today, these letters are often seen on crucifixes above the head of Jesus.
This one isn’t technically a name for Jesus, but it is a symbol found in many of our churches. It comes from the Greek word stauros, σταυρός, meaning cross. This word was used in early Greek Christian texts as a way to represent the crucifixion or the cross. Soon it became the earliest representation of the crucifixion. It is a combination of two Greek letters superimposed on each other, the “T” or “tau” and the letter “P” which is the upper case “r.”
If you spot one in your church, you might invite children to use their imaginations while gazing at it. The loop at the top might be Jesus’ head with his arms outstretched on the cross below. Use your own discretion with this activity though.
What symbols for the name of Jesus are represented in your church?