Reading the Signs

We see a lot of symbols every day, but most just tell the world how much something costs. They mark brand and status, not meaning. The famous Nike “swoosh” just means “expensive shoe.” A little horse on the pocket of a shirt just means “shirt trying to look expensive.” 
Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols
Mike Aquilina, Our Sunday Visitor, 192 pages, $15.95
We see a lot of symbols every day, but most just tell the world how much something costs. They mark brand and status, not meaning. The famous Nike “swoosh” just means “expensive shoe.” A little horse on the pocket of a shirt just means “shirt trying to look expensive.”
No one has warm feelings for the swoosh (though he may have warm feelings for the status it brings in his circle), but the early Christians seem to have loved their symbols, and with reason. They saw in a cross, a vine, a lamb, an anchor, a dolphin, in milk and Moses, in the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (the Alpha and Omega), and a host of other symbols memorials of the cost of their redemption and their new place in the world, not public displays of their success.
They saw reminders of who they were and how they ought to live. These symbols could convict and challenge as well as encourage. They were a sort of brand and status marker, but one that marked your subordination, not your success.
These symbols were somewhat like the old coin that reminds you of the beloved grandfather who gave it to you, or a signed photo of your hero, or the flag soldiers carry into battle. They were also a bit like the Steelers logo (I write from Pittsburgh, with long observation of the natives) a fan might plaster on his briefcase when leaving for a business trip to Cleveland, home of the arch-rival Browns.
In Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols, Mike Aquilina explains 25 symbols we’ve inherited from our fathers in the early Church, which meant everything — even life and death — to the people who painted them on the walls of their churches, inscribed them on tombs, even scratched them on the walls of public buildings and underground tombs. The symbols they put on lamps and rings and bottles and jugs reminded them of a counter-cultural, life-changing — at times life-endangering — commitment.
Aquilina, vice-president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a regular on EWTN, has written many books on the early Church, including The Fathers of the Church and The Mass of the Early Christians. Lea Marie Ravotti, who grew up an atheist in former Czechoslovakia and became a Catholic after moving to this country to teach art, has illustrated more than a hundred of the original works.
The early Christians took their symbols from the Old Testament (like the lamb and the plow), the New Testament (the fish, the anchor, and of course the cross), or both (the good shepherd, the banquet, and the vine). They even borrowed some from the pagan culture around them (the ankh, the orant, and the philosopher) and made up their own (the dolphin, the peacock, and the lighthouse). In every case, they drew wider and deeper meaning from the symbolthey adopted.
Take, for example, the fish, a symbol taken from both the Old and New Testaments and from nature. It was the most common symbol in the early Church, as far as we can tell from archaeology. Everyone knows that the first letters of the words “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” made up the Greek word ichthys, or fish. But Aquilina argues that the fish was a visual symbol before someone thought of using the word as a way of memorizing Jesus’ titles.
Jewish Christians, for example, would remember the use of fish to symbolize God’s people in the prophets Ezekiel and Habakkuk. Ezekiel talks of “very many fish” of “many kinds” in a river, with fisherman standing on the banks. These Christians saw themselves as the fish and the Church as the river. The fishermen symbolized the apostles and their successors the bishops, who were, as Jesus said, “fishers of men.”
Some saw themselves as fish because fish are born in water, as we are reborn in baptism, and fish die when taken from the water, as we die outside the Church. People who regularly saw fish suffocating on the dock would know what life outside the Church would mean.
It was a symbol capable of elaboration. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose of Milan urged Christians to imitate the fish because even when “the storm rages, the winds howl, the fish swims, it does not sink, because it is wont to swim.” The world “has many billows, heavy waves, fierce storms,” he says. “Be a fish, so that the waves of the world do not sink you.” Faithfulness, courage, obedience, perseverance ought to be as natural to us as swimming is to the fish, because unless we live like that, we will drown.
The fish was also a useful symbol at a time when marking yourself as a Christian could get you fed to the lions. For a time, it was one of the key words in the Christians’ secret code. One tombstone Aquilina mentions called the Christians the “divine race of the heavenly fish,” a name that would mean nothing to the outsider.
But for the early Christians, the fish was even more important as a symbol of the Eucharist. In the sixth chapter of his Gospel, John tells how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes before giving His Bread of Life discourse, and then at the end of the Gospel tells how the resurrected Jesus prepared the same meal for His disciples.
The early Christians naturally saw Jesus’ miraculous provision of food to hungry men, and indeed more food than anyone could eat, as a symbol of the Eucharist. Some early pictures of the Last Supper actually show a fish meal instead of the Passover supper. The fish declared the radical claim that, by participating in this ceremony, they were actually receiving the Son of God.
All that is part of what the first generations of Christians (the alert ones, anyway) saw when they saw a fish, even if the fish was only a few lines scratched onto a wall. They were, Aquilina writes, “more than prayer: they were a proclamation, a telling of the good news in symbols that would speak to many people” who came from different nations and races, who spoke different languages, who had converted from different religions. The pagan convert might not yet know the Old Testament, but he would know about fish — and about good shepherds and vines and banquets — and through such symbols learn something important about his Savior and himself.
And the symbols were meant to last. They used all these symbols “because they wanted them to stand forever as a perpetual prayer, for remembrance of the dead, for the perseverance of the living, and for deliverance in times of trial.”
These symbols offer modern Christians “an urgent message . . . from a distant family member.” It’s as if our first brothers and sisters, knowing that most of us suffer from spiritual attention deficit disorder, had plastered our homes and churches with Post-it notes reminding us of what Jesus has done and is doing for us.
Unfortunately, few of us know enough to read the notes. I will admit to looking at them with the same inattention with which I viewed the swoosh. When, driving down the road, I saw a cross on a steeple I hadn’t seen before, I thought, “Oh, there’s a church there.” I did not think of Jesus and His sacrifice. Signs and Mysteries is an excellent aid in learning to see and to read our ancestors’ messages and learn to think of the gospel to which they point us.

David Mills is the former editor of Touchstone magazine and is now writing a book on Mary. He and his family were received into the Church in 2001. An interview with Lea Marie Ravotti can be read here.


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