We’ve recently started a new sermon series in the book of Acts, and if you’ve looked closely on all of our promotional materials you may have seen an odd looking symbol featured in the middle. This symbol, called the Chi-Rho, has played an important role in the history of the Christian church. One thing I hope to never forget, is that we are not Christians in a vacuum. There has been a long line of Christians before us, and there will be a long line of Christians after us until Christ comes to take us home. This symbol is one of the earliest signs of the Christian faith, and it helps remind us of our Christian heritage going back early years of the Christian church.
What is a Chi-Rho?
The Chi-Rho is an early Christian monogram which serves as a symbol for Christ, and more broadly, the Christian faith. A monogram is two letters combined to form a symbol. To put in in context for us Montana folk, it’s very similar to a brand which ranchers put on their cattle. Brands are typically made from letters or initials, but they letters are moved around to form a distinct shape which communicate a deeper meaning (in this case: ownership).
The Chi-Rho is made up of two Greek letters, a chi, and rho, overlapped on each other. The chi, which looks like an “X” stands as the center, and the rho, which looks like a “P” is overlaid on the middle of it. You can see a picture of it in the graphic up top.
The letters are significant because they are the first two letters from the Greek word for Christ, “christos.” The shape is significant because it has a vague shape (especially depending on how long the shaft of the rho extends) of a cross.
While the Chi-Rho might be one of the most famous monograms of the Christian faith, it was not the first. As early as the 2nd century AD (the last book of the New Testament, Revelation, is estimated to be written around 90 AD, the second century begins ten years later in 100 AD) it became common for Christians to make “the sign of the cross” when they would wake up, or get out of the bath. This sign is probably pretty similar to the crossing of the chest popularized, and still practiced by many Catholics today. This was because, for obvious reasons, the cross had become the defining symbol of Christianity. So much so than in some cases church Fathers like Tertullian (160-220 AD) had to be careful that the church didn’t fall into “straurolatria”: worship of the cross itself verses worship of Jesus who died on the cross.
But for good reasons, the cross stood high above the identity of a Christian. One of the earliest monograms which accompanied this theme is the staurogram, which is a capital tau (“T”) combined again with the rho (“P”). When combined, this looks like a cross with a capital “P” on top. The significance of this monogram is obviously the cross shape, but also that the Rho came to symbolize (through some interesting numerological correlation) the Greek word for “help.” This association expressed the idea that the cross is what saves, or literally “helps.” This staurogram was the grandfather to the Chi-Rho which gained popularity a hundred years later.
The first few centuries of Christianity was riddled with persecution and ambivalence. But that changed on one evening in 313. Legend has it that one night before a battle at the Milvian Bridge, the Emperor Constantine had a dream that God spoke to him and gave him a divine symbol saying “In this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine then ordered for a symbol to be put on the shield of his soldiers, and after a victorious battle, that symbol became the sign of the emperor, and subsequently the Christian faith: the Chi-Rho. While the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion is debated, it is clear that the Chi-Rho, the symbol placed on the shields, became not only the sign of a now Christianized empire, but also of a Christian faith.
The subsequent “Edict of Milan” was Constantine’s legalization and therefore promotion of Christianity, and the Chi-Rho was emblazed on shields, helmets and coins across the empire. This promotion was popular, and pointed both to Constantine, and to Christ, until Julian the Apostate sought to “heathenize” Rome again in the latter part of the 4th Century AD.
The Chi Rho’s Legacy
You can argue the political background of the Chi-Rho, but whether it originated pre-Constantine, or even if it was a Christianized version of a pagan symbol, what it became was a symbol of Christianity and was worn with pride by those who followed it. As the popularity of the Chi-Rho increased among the believers, it was often accompanied but a Greek alpha and omega on each side of the symbol to point to Christ as the Alpha and the Omega (Rev 1:8). Additionally a wreath frequently surrounded the monogram to symbolize life, forever tying the death of Christ (cross shape of the Chi-Rho) to the life we inherited through Christ’s resurrection (Col 2:13).
Tombs, and catacombs containing the early monograms, including the Chi-Rho, have been found dating from the 1st century onward (the first forms of early Christian art were found in the preserved ruins of Pompeii which was destroyed in 79 AD). These archeological findings have been consistent all across the Middle East and Europe. The Chi-Rho has been found on cutlery, in castles, cathedrals, and caves. In using this symbol, we want to be mindful of the long line of Christians who have passed before us, labored on our faith, protected our gospel, and given their lives to the greatest hope on earth.