The THOMAS Web-Zine
January 2011 Issue 28

Signs, Symbols, and Icons

Bumper stickers ranging from a local football club, a "Save our .", to the National Trust, adorned the car in front. Amongst these was the 'fish' symbol which indicated that the car owner - or perhaps the car - was a Christian.

Fish Symbol What exactly was this symbol trying to convey? Did it mean that the driver as a practising Christian, would turn the other cheek if there was an unfortunate collision? Did it mean that the driver was more considerate and careful? Something similar to the "Baby on Board" warning triangles on people carriers. Perhaps these signs need to be in front of the driver to ensure they drove safely rather than the following road users! Such car stickers reflect a driver's membership of various 'tribes' and communities.

Beyond this car's bumper, the 'fish' symbol increasingly appears in shop windows, literature, and company adverts in newspapers and magazines. So the display of the 'fish' symbol shows allegiance to a church of some description.

Intrigued by the familiarity of this symbol and not knowing what it actually signified, some research was needed.

It turns out that this is one of the oldest symbols in Christianity dating from the 1st century. During persecution it was used as a secret 'code' when meeting strangers. One part of the fish would be drawn casually in the sand with the foot. If the other party completed the 'fish' then there was a shared 'communion', otherwise it could be quickly erased if there was no sign of recognition.

Later, Christians began using the Greek word ichthys for "fish". Ichthys consists of five letters from the Greek alphabet: I-ch-th-y-s. When these five letters are used as initials for five words, we obtain this Christian Declaration: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, translated as ' Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour.' In more recent times it was revived in the 1960s by an Australian evangelical church for one of their missions, but became popular and has now become widespread especially on bumper stickers!

Of course, the symbol that dominates the Christian Churches is the crucifix. This can cover a simple cross worn around the owner's neck (signifying membership of a 'tribe'), or the more elaborate version displayed in cloisters and altars everywhere. Elaborate versions normally show a emaciated figure hanging from the arms of the cross. It does seem peculiar that this horrible, vicious act upon a person (never mind our Master) and the later thousands of his followers remains the dominant symbol of Christianity. Such pain, such suffering can create a feeling of guilt about Jesus's sacrifice: "He died for our sins!" A very powerful theme in most established Churches, but perhaps one that could be misconceived. Obviously Jesus could not have suggested the crucifix as his lasting legacy, He could not even have used the cruciform version of the Holy blessing: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Early churches used Icons to show the Living Christ, rather than the 'dead' image so widespread today. It is no coincidence therefore that the Gospel of Thomas Collection, uses the images of the living Jesus, and Thomas on the front covers of the books in the series.

Signs, symbols, and icons may be needed to remind us of Jesus and his teachings, but we are often in danger of worshiping these symbols rather than using them as a 'gateways' to the Living Jesus. Thomas reports that when asked by his disciples "What is the Sign of your Father in you?" he said to them "It is a movement with a repose" (Logion 50). No crucifix, no fish, only a paradox about movement and repose.

How could this be turned into a symbol? What does the phrase mean to you? Everyone may have their own interpretation, their own vision, their own viewpoint, their own Knowing. And that is what Jesus was teaching us through Thomas. Rather than predefined symbols, gaze upon our image of the Living Jesus to contemplate and reflect on Logion 50 and discover your own signs symbols, and icons that remind you of your Master.


© Barry McGibbon & Hugh McGregor Ross