Halos, Crosses and Other Christian Symbols

Home | Category: Christian Prayers and Rituals


20120508-Halo Christ_oriental.jpg There are four main postures recognized by the Catholic church: standing, sitting, kneeling, and more rarely, prostration. Standing is regarded as the most noble. It symbolizes mankind and imparts respect. It is regarded as the best position for readings scriptures and praying. The sitting position represents peaceful openness, best suited for listening to readings or sermons. Kneeling is a demonstration of supplication and humility before God and more intimate and personal prayers. Protestation consists of lying outstretched on the ground. It is reserved for solemn moments such as when a person is about to pronounce his religious vows or when the death of Jesus is read during the Good Friday reading of the Passion.

Specific hand and arm gestures are used in liturgical rites, blessings, anointments and particularly in consecrations. As a symbol of purity, for example, a priest washes his fingers after the offertory and after communion. Hands are kept clasped together when a priest is officiating or when he has nothing to do.

The liturgy requires Catholics to make several hand gestures: 1) crossing themselves (See Below); 2) tracing a small sign of the cross with the thumb over the forehead, mouth and heart at the moment the of the announcement of the Gospels; and 3) shaking hands — done in lieu of the kiss of peace which is usually given before communion — as a sign of chaste affection.

Orthodox Christians are big on kissing: they kiss icons, the kiss priests, they kiss the floor. They also spend a lot of time lighting candles, crossing themselves, polishing stuff and filling bottles with holy water.

Crossing oneself — making the sign of the cross on one’s body — joins the Holy Trinity with the redemption of Christ as one recites the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. As a believer says “In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen” he touches his forehead when saying “Father,” stomach when saying “Son” and crosses his shoulders when saying “Holy Ghost.” Catholics cross their shoulders left to right and Orthodox Christians cross theirs right or left.

20120508-Mary Magdalene Rubens-Feast_of_Simon_the_Pharisee2.jpg
Mary Magdalene kissing the feet of Jesus
Other gestures and actions include: 1) washing the feet during Maundy Thursday, reenacting the gesture performed by Christ during the Last Supper. 2) bowing the head before symbols of divine presence: the altar, the cross and the Bible; 3) A genuflexion (bending at least one knee towards the ground) is required in all churches when passing in front of the Holy Sacrament. 4) Monks bow down low a the end of each psalm when they chant the “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” during the celebration of their offices and during certain ceremonies.

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ;

Early Christianity: Elaine Pagels website elaine-pagels.com ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Gnostic Society Library gnosis.org ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians pbs.org ; Guide to Early Church Documents iclnet.org; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex

20120508-Halo IvanRilski.jpg
Halo on Russian icon
Book: “History of Christianity” by Owen Chadwick; “The Faith: A History of Christianity” by Brian Moynahan.

Halos, Candles and Other Christian Symbols

Angels and saints are often depicted with halos around their heads, symbolizing God’s holiness radiating from them. The idea of the halo did not originate with Christianity. Gods and spirits in ancient Hindu, Indian, Greek and Roman art sometimes had light radiating from their heads.

Candles are symbols of the light of Christ and God. In the Gospels Jesus said “I am the light of the world.” Originally used as a means of illumination, candles are now used in most liturgical ceremonies and are placed on an altar after it has been consecrated through anointment. A blessing of candles, followed by a procession lies at the heart of the Candlemass celebration in early February. During the Easter Vigil, candles are a symbol of the risen Christ and the lighting of these candles is the climax of the entre liturgical year.

Fishes have been a Christian symbol since the early days after Christ’s death. They are symbols of Peter, the closest disciple to Jesus and the leader of the Apostles. Described by Jesus as “a fisher of men,” Peter was a fisherman by trade and was with Jesus from the beginning of his teachings. According to Matthew, Peter was the first to believe in the divinity of Jesus. He said: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter was present at most of the important events described in the Gospels.

Crosses and Christianity

The cross is the symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus. It represents Christ’s love for humanity in dying for its sins. It is worn on many Christians around their necks and defines the floor plan of many churches.

Coptic Orthodox Cross
There are number of different kinds of crosses. An empty cross shows that Christ has risen from the dead. The crucifix of the Catholic church often has an image of crucified Jesus hanging from it. The Protestant one is more clean and simple. The whiteness symbolizes purity; the brightness, the Light; and 90 degree angles perfection and the direction of God.

Pectoral crosses are large crossed worn around the necks of Catholic prelates in the front of the chest (hence pectoral, for chest). They are large and meant to be seen from a distance. They are worn over vestments during religious ceremonies but are too large and cumbersome to be worn on the streets.

The cross originally did not signify a crucifixion, some scholars say. It stood for "St. Andrews mark,” in which people vowed to be honest to his sacred name. Andrew was one the Apostles. He is said to have been crucified on an X-shaped cross in Patras Greece.

Many Christian symbols — crucifixes, rosaries, communion and holy water — can be traced back to the Egyptian Osiris cult. Osiris was a human who was resurrected as a god.

The Cross

Michael Symmons Roberts wrote for the BBC: “Paradoxically a symbol of suffering and defeat but also of triumph and salvation, the cross is the universal Christian symbol, acknowledged by all denominations as the single visual identifier of their faith. While Good Friday marks the Passion of Christ and his crucifixion, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians also reflect on the cross as a symbol of salvation with the feast of The Triumph of the Cross on 14th September. [Source: Michael Symmons Roberts, September 12, 2011,BBC |::|]

“The cross on which Jesus was executed 2000 years ago has been a symbol for his followers from very early on. At first, they were scared to display it publicly in case they were persecuted or mocked. But after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th Century, crucifixion was abolished as a punishment, and the cross was promoted as a symbol of the Son of God. |::|

“The belief that the cross can ward off evil and protect the wearer goes back a long way. From the early centuries of Christianity, it's been a custom among Christians to make the sign of a cross on themselves with a hand. At first, it was done with the thumb on the brow, on rising in the morning, settling to eat, starting a journey, going to bed. |::|

“Then it grew into the fuller gesture we have today - from head to heart, and shoulder to shoulder. But this symbol means so much to people, they still can't agree on how it should be done. Should the sign be made with the index AND middle fingers, because Jesus had two natures - God and Man? Should it be made with three fingers to signify the trinity? Or five, to number the wounds of Jesus on the cross? Even today, the Catholic west crosses itself from left shoulder to right, and the Orthodox east does it from right to left. Clearly, this symbol still has the power to divide opinion, and some of the hottest debates about the meaning of the cross in recent years have been conducted not in churches, but in art galleries.” |::|

See Crucifixion

Jesus Nailed to a Stake with a Horizontal Beam: Myth?

Robin M. Jensen wrote in the Washington Post, “The iconic image of the Christian cross tends to feature a central vertical beam transected by a perpendicular beam about a third of the way down. This version of the cross is visible everywhere from emoji (which include both the two-beam Latin cross and the Orthodox cross, also known as the Suppedaneum cross, which has another bar near the bottom) to roadside memorials and, of course, church steeples. [Source: Robin M. Jensen, Washington Post, April 14, 2017. Jensen is the Patrick O’Brien Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame, and author of “The Cross: History, Art”]

“But the actual crosses Romans used for executions probably took a different shape. The Greek and Latin words for “cross” — “stauros” and “crux” — do not necessarily describe what most people imagine as a cross. They refer to an upright stake upon which the condemned could be bound with hands above their heads. Most historians surmise that Jesus’ cross was more likely to have been T-shaped, with the vertical element notched to allow executioners to tie the victim to the crossbeam, then raise it and set it securely into the top. The Tau cross, named for its resemblance to the Greek letter, has been adopted over time by various Christian orders and sects, and it probably bears a stronger resemblance to the object upon which Jesus died on than those crosses more commonly depicted in Christian art.

“Myth No. 2: Jesus was fixed to the cross by nails in his hands and feet. Nearly every depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion — including masterpieces such as Sandro Botticelli’s “Mystic Crucifixion” and Diego Velázquez’s “Christ Crucified” — shows Him attached to the cross by nails through his palms and his feet. The New Testament Gospels do not, however, directly say that Jesus was nailed to the cross. In fact, the only reference to such nails in the Gospels comes from the book of John and the story of doubting Thomas, who asks to see the marks of the nails in Jesus’ hands to confirm that he is really encountering the resurrected Christ (John 20:25). The tradition that Jesus was nailed to the cross may also derive from the passage in some translations of Psalm 21:16 that says, “They pierce my hands and feet.”

“Yet, while some physical evidence for nailing the feet of crucifixion victims has been found by archaeologists, it would have been impossible to fix the condemned to a cross by nails alone, since the bones in the hands or wrists would not have supported the weight of the body. Rather, Romans would have at least also tied victims’ wrists to the crossbeam, or perhaps draped their arms over the back of the beam and secured them with ropes. Suffocation, rather than loss of blood, would be the cause of death.”

Jesus (Or a Bystander) Carried the Cross to Golgotha

Robin M. Jensen wrote in the Washington Post, “The Gospel of John states that Jesus bore the cross by himself (John 19:17) to a hill called Golgotha, while the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke claim that authorities compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the cross for Him, presumably because the flogging He had received had left Him too weak to carry it. In either case, most depictions in Christian art (including renditions by Michelangelo, El Greco and Titian) show either man carrying a large, wooden cross with both a vertical and a horizontal beam. [Source: Robin M. Jensen, Washington Post, April 14, 2017]

“Yet Romans generally had the upright beam already set up at the place of execution. To the extent that the condemned carried their own crosses, they would have been given only the horizontal piece, according to historians of ancient execution methods, including LaGrange College professor John Granger Cook.”

Importance of the Crucifixion to Early Christians

Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt

Robin M. Jensen wrote in the Washington Post, “For almost 1,000 years, the Christian church emphasized paradise, not Crucifixion,” two authors wrote in UU World magazine; in Slate, scholar Larry Hurtado claimed that “there was, in short, little to be gained in proclaiming a crucified saviour in that setting in which crucifixion was a grisly reality,” noting that “some early Christians tried to avoid reference to Jesus’ crucifixion.” [Source: Robin M. Jensen, Washington Post, April 14, 2017]

“It is true that crosses were extremely rare symbols for Christians to use before the mid-4th century. Moreover, the first images of crosses portray them more as slender, gemmed staffs than as sturdy instruments of execution. Depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion were even more rare, not occurring with any regularity until the 6th century.

“Yet there’s a reason this is surprising: Christian authors, poets and preachers wrote and spoke at great length about the significance and meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. In the 2nd century, Christian thinker Justin Martyr wrote that “when they crucified Him, driving in the nails, they pierced His hands and feet; and those who crucified Him parted His garments among themselves,” emphasizing the humiliation and suffering of Jesus’ execution in a long dialogue with a non-Christian interlocutor. Tertullian, another prolific early Christian writer, also meditated at length on the crucifixion and its theological meaning.

“While explaining the cross or crucifix’s absence from visual art may be difficult, timing its appearance with the rise of pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the sites of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection provides helpful clues. By the end of the 4th century, pilgrims were traveling to Jerusalem, where they could visit Golgotha and venerate a relic of the “true cross,” supposedly discovered by the Roman Empress Helena. Some even were privileged to receive a fragment of the holy wood. The image of the cross and the crucifix may be linked with pilgrims’ desire to re-create the scene in its historical setting, and the proliferation of cross images in the West may have to do with the cross-related souvenirs some pilgrims brought back.”

Christians Adapted the Cross from Older Symbols

Robin M. Jensen wrote in the Washington Post, “ This idea has some convinced followers. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, various authorities “have linked the cross with nature worship and pagan sex rites.” The Church of the Great God, another denomination, likewise claims that “long before the coming of Christ, pagans used the cross as a religious symbol.” [Source: Robin M. Jensen, Washington Post, April 14, 2017]

“Yet there is no evidence that Christians intentionally borrowed the cross from pre-Christian cultic symbols. While it is true that many ancient religions used symbols similar to the cross (and that Egyptian Christians even adapted the ankh, a hieroglyph for “life”), two intersecting lines are a simple and very common figure. This makes it difficult to assert that early Christians consciously adopted a particular sign rather than inventing one specifically referring to their unique story of Jesus’ death upon a cross. While it is easy to see similarities in religious artwork from various traditions, it is also easy enough to locate distinctions among them. The Christian cross, with all its associated symbols (anchors, letters, ploughs and more), is a distinct feature of Christian art.”

Incense and Christianity

Incense — an aromatic gum, traditionally frankincense or myrrh , that gives off perfumed smoke when lit — is used by Christians in rituals as a purifying agent and to create a spiritual atmosphere. It is also used in rituals in other religions, particularly Buddhism, Hinduism and Chinese religions. The incense used by Catholic is supplemented with benzoin, That used by Orthodox Christians is often lit in front of icons and normally is highly perfumed, often with roses.

In the Old Testament incense is mentioned in the psalms and when God told Moses to offer it once or twice day. In the New Testament, Zechariah was lighting incense when he told the angel Gabriel about the birth of John the Baptist: “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood in front of the throne; and so from the angel’s hand the smoke of the incense went up in the presence of God and with it the prayers of the saints.” The Three Wise men presented frankincense and myrrh at the birth of baby Jesus.

Incense is often burned in a censor, an ornamented fragrance burner with holes for the smoke to pour out of. It is held aloft with three chains. Using a spoon a believer take some incense from an incense-boat and places it on the burning coals housed in the cassolette of the censor. The smoke is spread by swinging the censer. The person in charge of lighting and swinging the censer is called a thurifet.

Christian Holy Water and Holy Oils

Holy water is a key element of many Christian rituals, blessings and ceremonies. During the baptism of a child it is sprinkled on the head of the child (ablution). During a Catholic funeral, it is gently poured on the body of the deceased as a sign of purification and sprinkled in the coffin and the tomb. Holy water is also used in the blessings and asperges at the beginning of Sunday and the washing of hands in the offertory.

Blessings involving water and holy water have been church traditions for some time. A basin of holy water at the entrance to a church is an invitation to believers to cross themselves after wetting the tips of their fingers in it. Holy water is water that has been blessed by a priest. It can be requested and taken home. Holy salts can be added for flavor and as a symbol of preservation.

Holy water used in a baptism
Holy oils have traditionally symbolized the consecration of a person by God to be a monarch, priest of prophet . “Messiah? and “Christ” both mean the “anointed one” (in Hebrew and Greek respectively). Anointment is still a key part of the coronation of the kings and queens on England and other monarchs. Objects and buildings can also be consecrated.

Oil is a symbol of joy and beauty. One of the psalms goes: “You love uprightness and detest evil. This is why god, your god, has anointed you with oil of gladness, as none of your rivals.” It has also been used since Biblical times as a balm to relieve pain and loosen tight muscles.

The Catholic Church emphasizes three kinds of holy oils: 1) the oil of “catechumens”, which gives the strength of the Holy Spirit to those who fight evil; 2) oil of “anointing”, used in sacrament of anointing the sick (unction, See Unction); and 3) the “holy chrism”, a fragrant oil used for ointments in consecration. After baptism holy oil marks the top of the head. During confirmation it crosses the head. After an episcopal ordination it is rubbed into the top of a new bishop’s head, or on the hands of a priest. During a dedication it is spread across the table of an altar .

During the “chrism” mass in the morning of Maundy Thursday (three days before Easter) a bishop solemnly blesses oil of the catechumens and the oil of anointing before finally consecrating the holy chrism. The oils are then stored in silver of gold ampulla (flasks) or altar cruets.

Christianity, Rosary Beads and Chords

Christian rosary beads typically have 50 beads separated in groups of ten by five large individual beads for a total of 55 beads. They are used by clergy and laity as aids in the reciting of certain kinds of repetitive prayers. Catholics generally count their rosary beads while they say prayers. Each rosary has a kind of tail with three consecutive beads, with two individual beads, at each end, finishing with a cross.

The rosary is widely used by Catholic to say prayers to the Virgin Mary with a believer saying 50 Hail Marys, five “Our Fathers” and five “Glory be to the Father” by ticking off a bead for each “Hail Mary” and saying “Our Father” each time the larger individual beads are hit. The cross on the tail is the starting point for each prayer sequence. On the cross the believer recites “I believe in God”; on the first individual bead he says “our Father,” then three “Hail Marys” and finally “Glory be to the father.” In this way the rosary honors the Trinity, the Cross and the Virgin all at the same time. The “Hail Mary” marks the greeting given to Mary by the angel Gabriel during the Annunciation (Announcement of the Birth of Christ).

20120508-rosary bible3.jpg
Rosary and Bible
Greek Orthodox monks often use a chord with knots rather than rosary beads to count their prayers. They are given the chord by their monastery and use it when they pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The name rosary comes from “rosarium”, the Latin name for “rose garden.” Rosaries originally consisted 165 dried carefully rolled up rose pedals, sometimes darkened with lampblack. The rose was a symbol of the Virgin Mary. The use of beads reportedly date back to the early Christian era when ascetics in the desert used beads or pebbles to tick off their prayers with the understanding that the more prayers an individual said the better chance he had of getting into heaven.

Buddhists and Muslims also use rosary-type beads to counts prayers. Buddhist prayer beads are used to count of prayers in dominations of special numbers. Each time the beads are touched, a prayer is said and merit is earned. Praying 108 times is regarded as particularly meritorious because it “disturbs passions” of “mankind’s delusions” cited in Buddhist scripture.

Muslims carry “misbaha” beads (sometimes called "worry beads"), which are used to count the number or prayers that have been recited. They also give away the mood of the their owners. They way the beads are carried and moved around can convey nervousness, boredom and anger.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Symbols of Catholicism” by Dom Robert Le Gall, Abbot of Kergonan (Barnes & Noble, 2000); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Newsweek, Time and National Geographic articles about Jesus, the Bible and Christianity. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.