ORIGIN AND MEANING OF THE CHRISTIAN SYMBOL OF CHI RHO

ORIGIN AND MEANING OF THE CHRISTIAN SYMBOL OF CHI RHO

A divine monogram, the Chi Rho is considered to be one of the Palaeo-Christian signs par excellence.

Today it is widely used as a religious symbol. Let’s understand its origins and meaning.

In pre-Christian times, the Chi Rho was already present in Ancient Egypt. It was used as an abbreviation of the adjective Chrestos = Good and, given its widespread use, was engraved on some bronze coins.

The Chi Rho was later adopted by the early Christians in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where Greek was also spoken as a language. Its first use is attested in the private sphere, especially on Christian sarcophagi. The symbol had, however, another meaning. The Chi Rho, placed on a funeral monument, attested the deceased person was a Christian.

The monogram is made up of two overlapping letters X and P, corresponding to the Greek letters X (CHI, pronounced Kh) and P (rho) as the initials of the Greek word Christòs = Anointed, translated in Hebrew as Messiah.

Initially used as a testimony of the Faith in Jesus Christ, the symbol also acquired another meaning as Christianity spread beyond the borders of Palestine.                                                                       

Chi Rho became a cryptic sign.

Being a Christian at that time was certainly not an easy thing. Just think of the fierce persecutions that the first believers had to endure. The first Christian Martyr was St Stephen, whose martyrdom was narrated to us in the Acts of the Apostles. It is here that an unknown Saul of Tarsus, i.e. our St Paul, witnessed the stoning of Stephen.

Unfortunately, however, the ferocious atrocities suffered by Christians were not confined to Jewish territory alone. The same persecutions also occurred in the western part of the Empire, particularly in Rome.

Although according to some historical sources, the first fifty years after the death of Jesus Christ in Rome were essentially peaceful, the first problems for the Christians arose precisely with the Jews. The Jews, in fact, resented the Christians, considering them a sect of unbelievers. Their disputes did not, however, concern the Roman authorities, who did not get involved in the religious issues between Christians and Jews. The Roman authorities understood neither the essence nor the subtleties of these religious disputes, and thought it was enough to just check they did not cause public disorder.

We had to wait until 64 A.D. to witness the first fierce persecution by the imperial authority. The emperor of the time, Nero, accused the Christians of causing the great fire that raged and destroyed the city of Rome. Keeping silent and therefore considered as guilt, many of them were condemned and killed. Among them, Peter and Paul also lost their lives.

From Nero's empire onwards, Christians were persecuted for quite a long time, with persecutions reaching their climax under Emperor Diocletian.

Deprived of their freedom of belief, the followers of Jesus Christ found other ways to profess their religion by adopting symbols and representations already present in early Christianity. Among these symbols, the Chi Rho became a sign of recognition during the persecutions.

Two other symbols were often placed next to the two letters: Alpha and Omega. The reason is to be found in the Revelation to John:

 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, saith [the] Lord God, he who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”

Around the monogram, we sometimes find the symbol of a laurel, representing Christ's Victory over Evil.

In conclusion, the Chi Rho becomes an expression of Faith. The engraved name of Christ is synonymous with trust and hope in the Risen Lord.

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