One of the older ‘secret’ symbols of the faith

By | November 23, 2011


Clement lived in the first century and was the fourth pope (after Peter, Linus and Cletus). Legends about him, which the Catholic Encyclopedia states trace to the fourth century, are that he was martyred under the Roman Emperor Trajan (who ruled from 98 to 117 A.D.) It is said that Trajan had Clement martyred by having an anchor tied to his neck before casting him into the sea. Afterwards, the sea receded to reveal a tomb, built by angels,  that housed Clement’s remains.

Clement is considered to be the first of the “Apostolic Fathers” and he left us one letter: a teaching to the church in Corinth. In it, Clement speaks of the value of humility, love, faith and the hope of resurrection.

Clement’s anchor, which is said to be buried under the altar of the church named for him in Rome — was located, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, in the 9th century by St. Cyril — teaches us part of this lesson, but without words.

A simple anchor, for the first 300 years or so of the church, was one of the main symbols of the Christian faith.

Secret code

Because Christians were persecuted until the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity an official state religion, it was dangerous to openly reveal your faith. So Christians used symbols, almost like secret codes, when meeting strangers or traveling to new areas. So the symbol of the fish — an acrostic or word puzzle — became a symbol for Christ.

As we read last week, the fish symbolized the miracle of the loaves and fish and, in Greek, the first letters of the phrase “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” spelled out the Greek word for fish: ichthys.

St. Clement’s cross

The anchor, with its upright shank and crossways stock, reminded Christians of Christ’s cross. (Getting back to Clement, the anchor cross is today known as St. Clement’s Cross.) Anchors are found on grave markers in the ancient catacombs of Rome dating back to the second century. One, in the cemetery of Domitilla, even has two fish speared on the stock of the anchor.

The Letter to the Hebrews, the author refers to God’s promise to Abraham and fulfilled in Christ, as “an anchor for our soul.” Many Bible scholars believe this verse might be the source of the later tie to the anchor symbol.

An anchor, by its very methodology, is a reminder of the faith to anyone who has gone sailing. An anchor sinks down into a body of water until it hits solid ground. The movement of the ship above, tossed by wind and waves, pulls at the anchor until it tips over. The hook-like flukes are dragged along until they catch on a rock or bury into the seabed. Then the stock hits bottom and snags the anchor tight, securing the boat above.

Barque of Peter

Since the church has long been known as “the barque of Peter,” because the first pope was a fisherman, the anchor symbol works well for an emblem of faith and hope.

Indeed, Clement himself counseled the Corinthians to cling to hope in God through Christ and the Spirit: “Having then this hope, let our souls be bound to him who is faithful in his promises, and just in his judgments.”

The anchor gradually faded as a Christian symbol once Constantine began using the cross for his own imperial insignia and use of the cross itself became acceptable. But the anchor enjoyed a renaissance as a Christian symbol around 1600, according to Christian History magazine and it again appeared on tombstones for about 200 years.

A symbol of faith and hope. With its crossbeam stock and upturned flukes hinting at a heart symbol, the anchor can also serve to remind us of the love of God revealed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Our faith in that truth of salvation, our hope in Christ and our certainty of God’s love all anchor us.

Sources: Christian History magazine (2002); “Catholic Encyclopedia”; Clement’s “Letter to the Corinthians” at;; and


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