Christian symbolism

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Christian symbolism is the use of actions or objects to represent the central concepts of the Christian faith, either as a reminder of those concepts or as a way of spiritually connecting with the underlying concept or act.

Sacraments

The most important symbols in the Christian church are the sacraments. These rites, which vary between denominations but may include holy communion, baptism, ordination and marriage, are commonly described as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace or, as in the Roman Catholic system, "outward signs and media of grace." In other words, at the very least, the rite is a symbol of the spiritual change or event that takes place. For example in communion the bread and wine are, at the least, symbolic of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus, which in turn are representative of the death of Jesus which brings salvation to the recipient. The rite of baptism is, at the least, symbolic of the cleansing of the sinner by God, and, especially where baptism is by immersion, of the spiritual death and resurrection of the baptized person.

Opinion differs as to the symbolic nature of the sacraments, with some Protestant denominations considering them entirely symbolic, and Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans believing that the outward rites truly do, by the power of God, act as media of grace.

Other Symbols

Symbols were widely used by the early Christian church. Symbols were inscribed on Christian tombs from the earliest days. One of the most widely used in the early church was that of the fish, which derived from a Greek acrostic Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour. Interestingly the cross (which is today one of the most widely recognised symbols in the world) was not commonly used as a symbol until later.

In Eastern Orthodox churches, icon paintings have symbolic significance.

Water has specific symbolic significance for Christians. Outside of baptism, water may represent cleansing or purity. Fire, especially in the form of a candle flame, represent both the Holy Spirit and light. The sources of these symbols derive from the Bible; for example from the tongues of fire that symbolised the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and from Jesus' description of his followers as the light of the world; or God is a consuming fire found in Hebrews 12.

Other Christian symbols include the dove (symbolic of the Holy Spirit), the sacrificial lamb (symbolic of Christ's sacrifice), the vine (symbolising the necessary connectedness of the Christian with Christ) and many others. These all derive from specific allegories in the Bible. Many are also used within Judaism.

Symbols drawn from outside

Also common in most Christian religious symbolism are emblems, figures or ideas drawn from the cultures which Christianity has superseded, so that symbols existing in those cultures have been adopted but imbued with Christian meaning. The phoenix standing for the Resurrection, or the Egg representing rebirth, are examples of this incorporation of pagan symbols, for use in Christian art and customs. Often a pagan symbol was given a Christian meaning allowing incorporation of traditional practices into the faith of the new converts.

Diverse influences and meaning illustrated

The Christmas tree may offer an interesting example of both streams of influence converging together (though when considered over the global history of Christianity, the Christmas tree isn't very important as a Christian symbol). Offering an explanation of these streams of meaning may illustrate how the interpretation of symbols is somewhat arbitrary and free.

On one hand, trees that remain green in the winter have been symbolic of life in the midst of death, and of rebirth, in many cultures. The Christian folk-religious custom of erecting and adorning evergreen trees in the middle of winter was borrowed directly from existing practice, regardless of whether the custom had pagan roots. Some of the existing meaning has been carried over into Christian culture, together with these practices.

On the other hand, trees appear with symbolic meaning throughout the Bible: and the Christmas tree alludes to and builds upon this biblical symbolism. From the symbolic tree of knowledge of good and evil, concerning which the Fall of man and the curse of death came, to the tree of life from access to which mankind has been cut off, to the Oak of Mamre which "witnessed" the covenant made with Abraham and the renewal of that covenant with Joshua, to promises concerning the root of Jesse, the Branch, the Messiah, who was hung on a tree to bear the curse, and has been raised up again as a tree of life for the healing of the nations: the Christian story can be told from beginning to end in the symbolic terms of trees.

To focus on one stream of the development of this late Christian symbol, the Christmas tree symbolizes, in part, the promised "Branch", the Messiah, who must be the "Root of Jesse", the descendant prefigured by Jesse's royal son, David. The tree symbolizes the human geneaology of Jesus and especially his tie to David's royal line through Solomon, which had been perplexingly cut off by God from ever inheriting the throne, after Jeconiah. This connection to the cut-off line is symbolized by the cut-down tree, and is indirectly a symbol of the Son of God. According to Christian tradition, although a descendant of Nathan on his mother's side, Jesus is an heir of Solomon on his supposed father's side. In other words, if Joseph were in fact Jesus's father, then Jesus cannot be the Messiah, because Joseph is descended from Jeconiah, the cut-off line.

But through his mother, the genealogy of Jesus satisfies the promise of the Messiah in terms of human descent, and this is symbolized by the erect tree. It is an evergreen, because of his eternal origin as God, according to Christian belief. And yet, the tree is also customarily cut down before it is decorated, symbolizing that Jesus is also an heir of the line of Solomon by adoption, through Joseph. So, Christians think that God's word was miraculously fulfilled through the virgin birth, because in that way, the Branch came from the cut-off line of Jesse by adoption, and also by the living line of Jesse. By the birth of Jesus, the promise concerning Jesse's line has been fulfilled, Christians believe, and in this restoration Adam and Eve's line, all mankind, redeemed from futility and death, is symbolized. And that is why the Christmas tree is cut down, but restored erect, evergreen and clothed in light, in symbolic commemoration of the virgin birth.

One could also view the Christmas Tree as symbolic of Christ's death and resurrection. The tree is cut down, and erected again, and adorned with ornaments and baubles, much as Christ was killed, then raised from the dead.

However, this is only one of many explanations of this symbol, and not by any means the most common one. Not only the symbol itself, but also the meaning of the symbol is accounted for and explained in manifold and sometimes contradictory ways, according to various particular traditions. This flexibility and diversity in accounting for the history and meaning should be kept in mind, when considering any Christian symbol.

The Tree of Jesse

From the eleventh century the Tree of Jesse has been portrayed in religious illuminated manuscripts, wall paintings, stained glass windows, wood carvings, floor tiles, embroidery and stone including a tomb stone. Malcolm has researched the subject and recorded in a Directory over 300 illustrations of the Tree of Jesse found in Cathedrals, Churches, Museums, State owned buildings and Libraries throughout the British Isles, Ireland and in Countries from Austria to Turkey; The United States of America and South America.

Examples

Enlarge picture
The coat of arms of the Anglican diocese of Trinidad contains several Christian visual symbols

See also

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