Symbolism in Christianity

Symbolism in Christianity, as with symbolism in many different religions, has been a long-standing practice, going back to the days of the Early Christians. Many Christian symbols, like the cross, have been adapted from older languages and icons but have found new, popularized meanings in the context of the Christian faith. Among the most common symbols are the cross, the crucifix, ichthys, the lamb and the dove.

Symbols & Icons of Christianity

Symbolism in Christianity, as with symbolism in many different religions, has been a long-standing practice, going back to the days of the Early Christians. Many Christian symbols, like the cross, have been adapted from older languages and icons but have found new, popularized meanings in the context of the Christian faith. Among the most common symbols are the cross, the crucifix, ichthys, the lamb and the dove.

Cross

The cross is the most widely recognized symbol of Christianity and its many denominations throughout the world; it is composed of two simple lines at right angles and represents the cross that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified on. Despite the popularity of the symbol in modern times, Early Christians apparently used the symbol only rarely at first.

The association of the cross with the death of Christ was originally deemed somewhat gruesome or even uncouth. Furthermore, by the time Christianity had begun gaining popularity in the Roman empire, the cross had already become associated with arguments against the tenants of Christianity. By the 3rd century, however, the cross was so deeply ingrained in the narrative of Christianity that the sign of the Lord was often interpreted to be the sign of the cross.

Crucifix

The crucifix, though similar to the cross, remains a distinct symbol of its own. The key difference between the two lies in the depiction of the crucified form of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, crucifixes have the body or figure of Christ and crosses do not. The crucifix is an especially important symbol to the Roman Catholic Church, Latin Church and Eastern Orthodox Church.

Many Protestant denominations view the crucifix as an idolatrous depiction of Christ. Martin Luther and other key figures of the Protestant Reformation viewed the practice of kneeling, sitting or standing before the crucifix to pray as worship of an object, rather than worship of God.

Ichthys

The Ichthys is a Christian symbol that appears as a simple drawing of a fish. The fish symbolizes and references many aspects of the Christian faith, including safe spaces for persecuted Christians in the Roman empire, key lessons from the scriptures and the New Testament, and even the original professions of the 12 apostles-fishermen. Early Christians, during the first few centuries of Roman persecution, made use of the symbol to denote or mark tombs and other places where practitioners of the faith could meet in secret and also used it as a means to determine allies from enemies that might out them as Christians.

The 12 apostles of Jesus of Nazareth were once fisherman, brought into the fold of faith. Jesus described the apostles as "fishers of men", likely referring to the fact that they would be gathering believers to them in the way they had gathered fish with their nets. One of the most famous portions of the New Testament can be found in the gospel of John, and details the story of Jesus of Nazareth feeding a crowd of hundreds with only five small loaves of bread and two fish.

In the 1970s the Ichthys was brought back into the public eye as a symbol of modern Christianity and peaceful rebellion against the Vietnam War. In 1973, the Ichthys symbol and its message of peace were brought to an Aquarius Rock Festival where the 'fish' became an icon, and eventually a household symbol. Today the Ichthys can be seen in all sorts of media; from bumper stickers to jewelry to dishware.

Lamb

The lamb is another important symbol in Christian theology and lore, symbolizing purity and sacrifice, as lambs where a common sacrificial animal at the time of Christianity's founding. The lamb also evokes the idea of shepherding and guiding. Popular Christian imagery often depicts Jesus of Nazarethas a shepherd, taking care of a flock of sheep that represent Christians.

John 1:29 says, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." This passage makes reference to the Jewish practice of Passover. Passover's origins began just before the Israelites began their exodus from Egypt, during the last of the ten plagues that God sent to Egyptians, the death of the first-borns. A lamb was sacrificed and its blood was spread over the doorposts of Jewish homes, so the Holy Spirit or Spirit of the Lord knew to 'pass over' and spare Jewish families. Referring to Jesus of Nazareth as the lamb of God refers to the blood spilled by Jesus as an act of protection for all Christians.

Dove

The dove stands as a symbol of purity in Christian theology, as well as the representative of the Holy Spirit, a part of the Holy Trinity. In the Old Testament, a dove brings Noah an olive branch to symbolize that God has allowed the flood waters to recede. The dove is also a Christian symbol of purity and peace.

Matthew 3:16 says"during the baptism of Jesus the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and came to rest on Jesus." Because of this, the dove has become associated with the tenant of baptism, as baptism is the act of purifying a soul through the aid of the Holy Spirit. The dove is also said to symbolize the souls of Christians who have been baptized and now carry the Holy Spirit in them.