This was the second symbol in an Advent series called Christian Symbols. Advent is the Church season that remembers Christ’s first arrival and looks forward to his return. Each of the symbols is tied to Christmas, as Advent in many ways is a countdown to Christmas. Before this message was given, the following passages were read: 1 Samuel 16, 1 Peter 2:1-10, and Matthew 16:13-19.
It’s a commonly seen symbol within Church settings and a mainstay feature of Christian decorating. It looks like a P with an X superimposed over it. Many Christians might call it the PX symbol with no idea what it means or represents. That P and X are actually the Greek letters Rho (the P) and Chi (X).
The Meaning of Chi-Rho
The Chi (X) -Rho (P) symbol is an abbreviation of the Greek word, Χριστός. When transliterated into English, Χριστός becomes very recognizable to the English reader – Christos. Χριστός is Christos, which is Christ. Christ as many of us know is not Jesus’ last name. It’s a title. Χριστός means “anointed one.” Χριστός in Hebrew is מָשִׁיח, which in transliteration is māšîaḥ. That looks a lot more familiar to English readers as Messiah! Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one.
Chi-Rho (the PX symbol) is simply a shorthand abbreviation for Christ.
To anoint someone is to pour oil on their heads. In the Old Testament, we see three offices among God’s people that have an installation by anointing. When Samuel was told to go to Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be king, Samuel knew he’d need some oil to do the anointing, so he grabbed a horn and filled it with oil and made the trek to Bethlehem. In addition to kings being anointed into their official position of service, prophets and priests were also anointed.
As the Christ, Jesus serves in all three offices: Prophet, Priest, and King (PPK).
Christ and Christmas
In preparation for celebrating Christmas, we can meditate on how all three of these offices are manifest in the birth of Christ.
Prophets speak the word of God to people. Jesus himself is the Word of God! John says at the opening of his Gospel that the Word was in the beginning with God and was himself God and that the Word became flesh. That becoming flesh was the conception of Christ in Mary’s womb and his birth on Christmas is when the Word that was made flesh was born and held in the human hands of his mother (Mary) and step-father (Joseph). You cannot become a greater prophet than being the very Word of God coming to be among mankind in the flesh.
Priests represent God to man. They also represent man to God. They play the middle man. Jesus does this as nobody else can since he is both fully God and fully man. His unique ability as priest is manifest in his way of sacrificing. Levitical priests in the Old Testament had the task of taking people’s animal offerings and sacrificing them to God on behalf of the one bringing the offering. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would make a sacrifice for himself for the forgiveness of his sins and then a sacrifice on behalf of God’s people for the forgiveness of their sins. Serving as a priest, not in the Levitical order, but in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus did not have to make a sacrifice for himself before offering a sacrifice for others, because he had no sin of his own to be atoned! Jesus being fully divine never sinned. This meant that Jesus as our high priest could offer himself as the sacrifice, which he did on the cross of Calvary. That sacrificial offering of himself that atoned for the sins of mankind, once and for all, could only take place because of Christmas (the Incarnation, his taking on of flesh, being born among us – Emmanuel).
King! Well, at Christmas we usually focus on Jesus’ kingship. In our Christmas nativities, we have the wise men offering their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They came seeking the King of the Jews. They weren’t there for his birth, but their visitation is tied to the short Christmas season that ends on January 6th, the day the Church historically observes as the wise men’s time of meeting Jesus. Most of our Christmas carols speak to Jesus’ kingship over and above his other anointed offices of prophet and priest. We tend to readily get Christ’s office of king at Christmas, as well as during all of Advent as we long for our king to return.
Chi-Rho in History
In all of my interweb searches, the dates I see placed for all of the surviving Chi-Rho images from ancient times are usually in the 4th century. The image above is a catacomb image of Peter of and Paul with the Chi-Rho between them. It is rather certain that Chi-Rho was used among Christians earlier than the 4th century, but its popularity and utter dominance on the Roman scene came in the 4th century (probably why most of the dates I see are dated to that time period).
The day before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky. His troops that were with him also witnessed this sign. With the cross was the message: “By this sign thou shall conquer.” That evening, he had a dream reaffirming what he had seen that day. So on the day of the battle, he had all his men mark Chi-Rho on their shields. He also placed Chi-Rho over his banner that marked his location on the field. Did all of these events happen as I have just shared? Probably. This account comes to us by two contemporaries of Constantine, Eusebius and Lactantius. As we study Scripture, we see that God has intervened in such direct ways within history.
It is for certain that Constantine won the battle and from that day, he declared the Roman Empire to be Christian. The Chi-Rho symbol then took over the empire. The Chi-Rho even appears on the tails side of a Constantine coin that is dated to 317 AD. Look at that snake being conquered, vanquished, under the Chi-Rho?
Chi-Rho Application for You
I know that many Christians get uptight about Christmas being reduced to X-Mas. They see it as yet another assault on Christ. Another maneuver to remove Christ from Christmas. The first time I saw the X-Mas was on the first Simpsons’ Christmas special. Homer’s Christmas decorating was a horror. All the reindeer were sliding off the roof and the sleigh and Santa were a tumbled mess on the ground and only a few lights flickered. His neighbor Ned however had the perfect house with decorations all over the yard, house, and roof. On the roof, Ned spelled out in lights, “Merry X-Mas.” It confused me. I was told it was shorthand for Christmas, and on the roof, yeah, maybe he would have ran out of room, so he shortened it. The character, Ned, is a Christian. He wouldn’t be intentionally removing Christ from Christmas, would he? That’s not his character.
Once, when writing Christmas cards, I wrote too much and ran out of space. To squeeze in Merry Christmas and still have room to write, “Love, Andy”, what did I do? I wrote, “X-Mas.” Then… to make sure whoever received knew I wasn’t assaulting Christ, I added a P onto that X. I wrote Chi-Rho. This meant I was actually writing Christ. And it made me think, maybe that’s how I should write Christmas all the time, and for good measure, I’ll add an extra s to the end to highlight that the day is Christ’s Mass! Maybe we all can do that. It could make Christ stand out all the more in the holiday that carries his name by so many who don’t worship him.
Finally, in application to yourself, remember this when you see Chi-Rho: YOU ARE A CHRISTIAN. You are an anointed one. Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and so are you in your baptism. Peter says in 1 Peter 2 that as you come to Christ the Living Stone, you are a little living stone, being built into a spiritual house, in which Christians are royal priesthood who proclaim praises of him who called us out of darkness into his light. There you have it. As a Christian, following Christ, you too work in all three offices. You are royalty, as a prince or princess in God’s family. You are a priest who represents God to people, and you represent people to God. We do this largely through our prayers. In our prayers, we are placing people before God. And as we proclaim his praises and tell of his marvelous salvation, we are operating as prophets, speaking God’s Word.