Catholic CornucopiadCheney

5. Symbols of Christ

Catholic Customs and Symbols

Orientius, a Christian Latin poet of the fifth century, writes a hexameter line saying that “The Fish born in the waters is Himself the author of baptism”—that is, Our Saviour. He had been anticipated by Tertullian: “We little fishes, according to our Fish, Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by remaining in water.” Christ trained his fishermen Apostles to be fishers of men. “In the earliest Christian hymn known to us, that given by Clement of Alexandria at the end of his Paedagogus, Christ is addressed as—

‘Fisher of men, the Blest,
Out of the world’s unrest,
Out of sin’s troubled sea,
Taking us, Lord, to thee.
With choicest fish good store
Drawing the net to shore.’

“St. Cyril of Jerusalem says that Christ catches us with a hook, not to slay us, but after slaying to make us live” (Farrar).

Christ was also symbolized by the Dolphin, the king amongst fishes. The ancients considered it sacred, and esteemed killing it a sacrilege. It inhabited the purest waters, was an emblem of strength and swiftness, was fond of human society, was patient and valorous, gave loving care to its single offspring.

The fish was an apt symbol of Christ for all of these reasons, but perhaps more than all for the reason that the Greek word for fish, ICHTHYS, contains five Greek letters (I, CH, TH, Y, S) forming initials of Iesous CHristos THeou Yios Soter, which means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” “Thus the meaning of the fish-anagram, as we find it upon the walls of the catacombs, on gems, and later on in the decoration of baptisteries, is simple enough. It stands for the word Christ, which was not to be expressed. It frequently also stands for the Eucharist, as in the following epitaph found in the catacombs: ‘Saintly Maritima, thou hast not left the sweet light, for thou didst have with thee [here is inserted the symbol of an anchor between two dolphins] the immortal one who reigns over all, for thy love everywhere preceded thee.’ It seems to say that Maritima had been fortified with the holy Viaticum, the hope of the Christian, a fact which was worthy of mention in those troubled times” (Heuser).

Christ was symbolized by the Vine: “I am the vine, you are the branches,” and by the Lamb of the Apocalypse. As we have seen already, He was the New Orpheus. Later on, He was symbolized by the Pelican, which legendary lore characterized as feeding her brood, in case of need, with her own blood, as referred to in the Eucharistic hymn Adoro te devote (Devoutly I adore Thee), ascribed to St. Thomas Aquinas:
Pie Pelicane, Jesu Domine,
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine—

Pelican most tender! Jesus, Lord and God,
Wash my stained spirit in Thy Precious Blood.

In his Armorie of Birds, Skelton has:
Then sayd the Pellican:
When my Byrdts be slayne
With my bloude I them revyve.
Scripture doth record
The same dyd our Lord
And rose from deth to lyve.

The fabled Phoenix and the Griffin were such symbols, the former for the most common legend of its rebirth from its own funeral pyre, or from the other legend that, about to die, it went to Arabia and from the nest in which it died another phoenix arose to life; the Griffin, because in its dual body it represented the two natures of Christ united in His divine personality. The Cock symbolized variously Christ, St. Peter, and the preachers of Christ; and similarly the Eagle symbolized Christ as well as the Beloved Disciple.