If you drive by the church this week, you will see a sign that reads:
Yes, it says "XMAS" instead of "CHRISTMAS."
I used the shorthand of XMAS for two main reasons. First, if you have ever put together one of these signs and tried to make it easily readable to people passing by in cars and trucks (or even if they are stopped at the traffic light), you know that shortcuts can be very helpful. Not only could I keep all the words short and easier to read at a glance by using "XMAS" instead of "CHRISTMAS," I saved ten letters (I was already running out of Cs and Ss--remember, the message is on both sides!).
Second, I love any excuse to help people learn the history of Christianity and to remind us all of the richness of that history.
What is the origin of XMAS?
For centuries, the central symbol of Christianity has been the cross. It often surprises modern Christians that this was not always the case. In fact, it was not until the fourth century that the cross was widely used as a symbol for the faith.
Symbols were widely used by the early church for two main reasons. First, many people of that age were illiterate and relied on the use of simple symbols for communication beyond the spoken word. Second, Christians were widely persecuted during the first three centuries and used symbols to communicate safely with each other. The best secret symbols would have been ones that had many other meanings, disguising the fact that the use of a particular symbol was to identify and communicate with Christians,
It turns out that the earliest widely used symbols used by Christians were both based on the Greek letter chi (X), the first letter of the Greek word χριστός. χριστός (or using the Latin alphabet, Christos) means "anointed one" and was the direct translation of the Hebrew word for "Messiah." "Christ" is the English version of the Greek word χριστός. Many historians believe that the very earliest symbolic identifier of the Christian faith, or of Jesus in particular, was simply the letter chi -- X.
But, relatively soon, chi-rho (the first two letters of χριστός.) emerged as a sign for Christ, the Christian faith, or a church (usually a home or secret hiding place). During that same time period, probably by the end of the first century of Christianity, a second chi-based symbol emerged --the ichthus.
The Greek word for fish is "ichthys." As early as the first century, Christians made an acrostic from this word: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter --translated into English, it means "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior." Note that the Greek letter iota (I) translates into the Latin alphabet as "J." I used this particular image of the ichthus because it has the Greek acrostic printed on it. The symbol used by the early Christians was just the fish shape. But notice, the back of the fish's body and the tail is an X -- the chi symbol.
"we, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water." Tertulian (2nd-century)
The fish (which had a hidden chi in its tail!) was an effective symbol for several reasons beyond the acrostic. After all, Christ fed the 5,000 with 2 fishes and 5 loaves (a meal recapitulated in Christian love feasts) and called his disciples "fishers of men." Water baptism, practiced by immersion in the early church, created a parallel between fish and converts. The famous second-century theologian, Tertullian, put it this way: "we, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water."
So, Merry XMAS!
I find purposefully using XMAS as a shorthand for Christmas reminds me (and gives me the opportunity to explain to others) of the earliest Christians, who were often in-hiding for their faith, but eager to communicate their new-found belief in Jesus Christ, the Savior. May we be as eager to wish everyone a blessed Christmas!
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is χριστός ["the Messiah"], the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2: 8-12