Liturgical worship is one of the greatest traditions in western Christianity. Shared by Protestants and Catholics alike, the rites and rituals of the mass date back as far as the second century. When we worship, we sing the same songs and pray some of the same prayers as Christians have for millennia.
This liturgical heritage is more than just an order of worship. It is the most important teaching tool for Catholics who participate in the mass. For many, the mass is the only time they hear God’s word and the teachings of the church. The liturgical calendar helps to emphasize different episodes in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Each season, from Advent to Pentecost, examines a different aspect of the identity and story of Jesus.
The Holy Name of Jesus
The church dedicates the month of January to the Holy Name of Jesus. It begins with the celebration of the day Jesus received his name. The gospel reading for the day contains this passage from Luke 2, “And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” While the sentence is short, the details are very important.
Luke mentions the eighth day because it refers to God’s command in Leviticus 12 that all Israel circumcise their sons on the eighth day after birth. This seemingly small detail reminds us that Jesus followed God’s law perfectly, even when he was eight days old.
Jesus’ name, itself, is also significant. It comes from a Hebrew word ישוֹע, pronounced Yeshua, which means, “He saves.” In the gospel of Matthew, an angel tells Joseph in a dream to name Mary’s son Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Jesus Reigns in Heaven
St. Paul also writes about the name of Jesus as the highest name in all of creation. Because Jesus humbled himself to the point of death on the cross, he was raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God the Father. The name of Jesus not only represents sacrifice and salvation, but it also reminds us that he rules all of creation for the benefit of his church. He will return to judge the world and raise the faithful from the dead to eternal life.
The church uses many symbols for the holy name of Jesus. We find the first symbols for his name in the handwritten copies of the New Testament. Out of respect for holy names, called nomina sacra by academics, the copiers abbreviated the Greek words for God, Lord, Spirit, and others. Most often, they wrote the first letter and the last letter with a line drawn over the top of the symbol.
IHS is one such symbol. It comes from the Greek spelling of Jesus’ name, ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, so you can read the name, Jesus, whenever you see it. This symbol almost always appears superimposed over the cross or over a crucifix. The symbolism connects the name of Jesus to his sacrificial action on the cross to save us. This symbol appears frequently in the church, most notably in the coat of arms for Pope Francis.
We also use other symbols to refer to Jesus Christ. Chi Rho is an ancient symbol used by the very first Christians to represent the word, Christ. It looks like a combination of an “X” and a “P,” but it derives from the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, χριστος or Christos. One of the most common symbols in the church, you can find it anywhere you might find Christian symbols like stained-glass windows, vestments, altar decorations, and pyxes. Emperor Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, used the Chi Rho in his military standards, too.
The IH monogram is a similar combination of letters to make a single symbol. This one comes from the first two letters of Jesus’ name in Greek. Combined, the symbol looks like an “H” with a line struck vertically down the middle. A striking symbol, you can find explanations for it in the earliest letters in the church like the Epistle of Barnabas or from the letters of Clement of Alexandria.
Ixthus or the Jesus Fish
The fish is also a common symbol for Jesus, and it is popular today among Christians. A stylized version of a fish drawn with a simple line, the spelling of the Greek word, Ιχθυς or Ichthus, is an acrostic for the titles of Jesus, Jesus (Ι) Christ (Χ) Son (υ) of God (θ) Savior (ς). Legend has it that the early Christians used this symbol to identify themselves secretly when they were being persecuted by the Roman government.
The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus reminds the Catholic Church about the earliest days of Jesus’ life, his circumcision, and naming. Even in his first eight days, he began to fulfill God’s law, which he continued to do for the rest of his life. We use symbols for the name of Jesus Christ in art and vestments to remind us of him and the salvation he gives us.