Christianity as a religion is steeped in imagery and symbolism. Just think about the cross that’s often hanging front and center in sanctuaries or the beautiful stained glass windows that adorn many church walls. Recently the ichthus (the “fish” symbol that happens to be one of the faith’s oldest) has made a comeback, finding its way to car bumpers everywhere. Christians throughout time crafted these symbols intentionally and purposefully because they can communicate powerful messages of God’s truth and love. They are important pieces of our faith even today because they still carry their power if we’ll only let them. Unfortunately, I’m finding that many Christians are forgetting our traditions, our history, and our basic liturgical vocabulary. My assumption is that this is occurring because there is a lack of teaching occurring in many churches. Such a depletion allows for misinformation about our symbols to arise and spread. And there may be no other time in all of the year where this is more prevalent than during the Christmas season.
Take for instance the Chi Rho, pictured to the left. This symbol was developed at the latest in the fourth century, but more than likely it is older than that. It derives its meaning from the first two letters of the word “Christ” in the Greek alphabet – Chi (resembling our letter “X”) and Rho (resembling our letter “P”). The Chi Rho is one of Christianity’s earliest symbols for identifying Jesus Christ. Chances are, if you worship in a traditional sanctuary, you’ll find one displayed somewhere.
When Christianity began to grow and find its way into other cultures with other languages, symbols like the Chi Rho went with it. And over time, the symbols began to take on new shapes and new everyday uses. For instance, simply using the letter “X” from the Chi Rho quickly developed as a way to symbolize and refer to Christ. The letter “X” has literally meant Christ in the English language for close to 1,000 years. Writers quickly took to the practice of using terms like Xmas and Xtian. This was standard usage for hundreds and hundreds of years. These writers had no devious motives. Rather, they were using the history and the traditions that had been handed down to them in order to communicate the language of the faith.
And, now, after a millennium of symbolizing Jesus, it seems that some are trying to take Christ out of the “X.” I don’t know when this started or who started it, but I can tell you something I do know – I’m frustrated by it. I’m frustrated that some people are manipulating important symbols of worship in the Christian tradition. I’m frustrated that Christians have so forgotten our heritage that we don’t know that “X” is a historically and theologically sound way of symbolizing Christ. But more than anything else, I’m frustrated that this is the Christmas fight that we’ve chosen for ourselves.
We have more important things to do than argue about the alphabet. People are hungry; people are homeless; people are dying from unjust violence and war. Church… our passion is misplaced. Our zeal to protect the Christian roots of Christmas is being wasted. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Christmas can truly be about Jesus and the work of charity and justice to which he called us. But we must open our eyes to see what really matters to him.
The “X” points us to Christ, and the work he would have us do. That’s the power of a symbol. It’s the power of language. I hope you will be so bold as to teach and correct those who would strip Christ from the “X” because an informed church is always a better church. A church that has a deep connection with its traditions and history and liturgy will always be a church more capable of following the teachings of Jesus. Let’s embrace the “X” and the Christ it symbolizes, so that we can be the church God has called us to be.
If you’d like to read more about the Chi Rho and the use of “X” throughout Christian history, here are a few links. I encourage you to check them out.