Some animals not found at the manger scene

By | January 6, 2013

One popular version of “The Book of the Gospels” carried in procession at the beginning of Mass is emblazoned with a cross with the Greek letters “alpha” and “omega” for Christ as the beginning and the end. The cross is surrounded by the above four symbols because they are traditional symbols of the evangelists.

Besides on the Gospel book, these symbols appear in stained glass windows or church carvings. While not as common today, they were very popular across Europe into the 15th century. For example, the west portico of the Chartres Cathedral in France, dating to 1145, has a carving of Christ surrounded by the four symbols. Representations of the lion, ox, eagle and human appear in the “Book of Kells,” dating to the year 800, and the city of Venice, which has St. Mark as its patron saint, is adorned with lions — which are Mark’s contribution to the four emblems.

Where did the symbols for the evangelists originate? And what message do they have in this Year of Faith?

As representations of the evangelists, they date to at least the second century. St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202), wrote about the symbols and explained how they represented Christ as portrayed in the Gospels: “The first living creature was like a lion,’ symbolizing his effectual working, his leadership, and royal power; ‘the second was like a calf,’ signifying sacrificial and sacerdotal order; ‘the third has as it were, the face of a man’ — an evident description of his advent as a human being; ‘the fourth was like a flying eagle,’ pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with his wings over the church” (“Against Heresies”).

Irenaeus drew his references from the Book of Revelation: “In the center and around the throne, there were four living creatures … The first creature resembled a lion, the second was like a calf, the third had a face like that of a human being, and the fourth looked like an eagle in flight” (Rv 4:6-7). The New American Bible says these “symbolize, respectively, what is noblest, strongest, wisest and swiftest of creation.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the four creatures of Revelation represent “all creation” (n. 1138).

The four creatures parallel Old Testament descriptions of the cherubim who carry God’s throne in visions of the prophet Ezekiel. These cherubim have four faces — a lion, man, eagle and ox (Ez 1:1-14 and 10:1-22).

But why have different symbols for each evangelist? Well, we have different Gospels, from different writers, each emphasizing a different and compelling aspect of Jesus’ life and message.

John’s eagle

John, the last Gospel written, for example, presents the most highly developed understanding of Jesus as the Christ. John shows a lofty, heavenly understanding of Christ, revealed in all his glory and power. So it is easy to see why John’s Gospel is symbolized by the powerful, soaring eagle. Indeed, the Gospel even starts in heaven: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God …” (Jn 1:1).

St. Augustine said it this way: John “soars like an eagle above the clouds of human infirmity, gazing upon the light of the unchangeable truth with the keen and steady eyes of the heart.”

Luke and the ox

Luke presents Jesus as the compassionate and willing victim who fulfills God’s plan for salvation. So, this Gospel begins with Zechariah, a priest in the Temple. The temple priests’ main job was to offer the sacrifices, and the greatest of the sacrificial animals was the ox.

Mark’s lion

Mark begins in the wilderness, with John the Baptist, “the voice crying out in the wilderness.” So the male lion, solitary and roaring in the wild, represents Mark’s Gospel. Mark portrays Jesus as a noble and solitary figure, even in the midst of crowds. Also, the tradition that lions sleep with their eyes open became symbolic of Christ’s resurrection.

Matthew and the man

Last comes Matthew’s Gospel, written to show a largely Jewish audience that Jesus is the “new Moses,” fulfilling the Law and establishing a new and eternal covenant. Also, Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1). So Matthew is represented symbolically by a human being.

Other writers saw even more in symbols of the evangelists and their Gospels. For example, Blessed Rabanus Maurus, a Benedictine monk and ninth century archbishop of Mainz, Germany, saw lessons for Christian living in these symbols:

  • Like the lion of Mark, we should be courageous in faith and speak out as boldly as St. John the Baptist did;
  • Like the human lineage of Jesus portrayed in Matthew, we should use the gifts of human knowledge and reasoning to grow in knowledge of God;
  • Like the ox of Luke, Christianity involves sacrifice and, like both Jesus and his mother, Mary, we should offer ourselves willingly to honor God;
  • Like the soaring eagle of John, Christians must keep their eyes on the goal of glorious union with God.

So, when you next see the Gospel book and its symbols pass by, pick one of them as an example to follow in the upcoming year and as a guide to your work of the new evangelization.

Sources: stesalinas.org; Catechism of the Catholic Church; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “History of the Christian Church” by Philip Schaff; Calvin College at calvin.edu; Fr. Felix Just, SJ, at catholic-resources.org; sacred-destinations.com; “Church Fathers” at newadvent.org; the New American Bible, St. Joseph Study Edition.

Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, the Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor.

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