Early Christian Symbols: The Anchor

In the ancient world, written symbols were viewed with a sense of mystical fascination. Pagans and Christians alike had a coded language of symbolism to express the mystical and mysterious truths of their religion; they used to sign their letters with these symbols, scratch them onto walls and paving stones, and (most powerfully) inscribe them on the tombs of their loved ones. Perhaps the most famous Christian symbol still recognisable today is the ‘ichthys’ fish. Another is the ‘chi-rho’: ‘⳩’, a combination of the first two letters of ‘Christ’ in Greek (‘χριστὀς’).

A Chi-Rho from Algeria, c. 380 CE (Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a sense in which these symbols express something which detailed images and icons never could. A drawn image of Christ is forced to represent Him visually, with hair of a certain length, skin of a certain shade, a certain facial expression; such details are usually more the imagination of the artist than an accurate representation of the real person of Christ (whose exact appearance we cannot know). A symbol like the ‘chi-rho’ however, is not bound by any imagined or conjectured images of Christ. Rather than represent Christ, its function is to refer to the real Christ; the chi-rho isn’t an image of Christ, it’s an invocation of His name, a calling out to the real, concrete being that we call Christ. And yet the symbol is more than a written word; it possesses the beauty and simplicity of an image, without resorting to imagined representations of its subject. While I certainly love iconography (there’s no Orthodox that doesn’t), there’s a part of me which is far more enchanted by a humble chi-rho carved onto a mother’s grave by her Christian son in hope of her resurrection than by the greatest Catholic and Byzantine mosaics.

This is the first of a series of posts on ancient Christian symbols. Not all of them refer exactly to Christ Himself, some represent hope, the church or resurrection. But all of them catch onto the truth revealed by Christ. This post is about my favourite of the early Christian symbols: the anchor.

A typical Christian anchor. See here for some archaeological examples (there’s quite a bit of variation).

What does this symbol mean? Well, one of the first places scholars have turned to make sense of it is Hebrews 6:19-20:

“This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil, where the forerunner has entered for us, even Jesus, having become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

This is probably the earliest Christian use of the anchor as a metaphor for hope. The anchor is hope in the faithfulness of God; hope that He will keep His covenant to us as He did to Abraham. God’s covenant to Abraham was to multiply his descendants, but God’s New Covenant to us through Christ is a promise to draw us into Himself (John 17:21-23). Christ ‘enters the Presence behind the Veil’ and we, being anchored to Him, will be drawn in after Him to enter into glorious, life-giving unity with God. As a symbol of hope, the anchor means for Christians all that it means for sailors: stability and security, even in wild weather, an unseen but vital connection to the ocean floor that cuts through the volatile, changeable and hostile waters above it.

Historian Charles Kennedy however, argues that the anchor had a much deeper, more mystical significance. Jews and early Christians alike, he argued, made strong use of the concept of a ‘seal’. At a Christian baptism, the baptised is said to be ‘sealed’ with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and has therefore entered into God’s saving New Covenant. In Ezekiel, an angel is ordered to “Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry over all the abominations that are done within it.” (Ez 9:4; cf. Rev 7:3 and 14:1) There’s archaeological evidence that Jews used the symbol ‘+’ (a form of the Hebrew letter taw) to mark out the names of righteous Jews who were the ‘property’ of Yahweh, i.e. who lived in covenant with Him and died in the hope of His salvation. Kennedy thinks the anchor meant something very similar for Christians: it was a mark intended to identify the buried person as the property of Christ, sealed with His Spirit and a partaker in His covenant of Resurrection. Why?

Well, here’s where it gets really interesting. Rev 14:13 contains a phrase which has been used by Christians since the earliest days: “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.'” ‘To die in the Lord’, means to die in the hope Resurrection. In Greek, the phrase ‘in the Lord’ is ‘en kyriō’, which happens to sound a lot like the Greek word for anchor: ‘ankyra’. Kennedy thinks (and he may well be right) that as a symbol used on graves, the anchor signified that the entombed person had died ‘en kyrio’, ‘in the Lord’ (and as evidence he cites the frequent Greek practice of using such visual puns in symbols; e.g. the symbol of the city of Rhodes was a rose, because the Greek word for rose was ‘rhodos’).

The anchor may well be a clever pun on the phrase ‘en kyrio’, but that’s certainly not all that it means. As a symbol, it evokes stability, security and hope, even in the darkest and most challenging of circumstances. But to me, it also powerfully suggests that the fallen, tortured reality in which we live bears the same relation to true reality that the volatile ocean bears to the ocean floor. This I think, captures one of the most powerful mystical notions in Christian (and especially Eastern Christian) thought: that the fallen, broken world we live in is only a lesser reflection of true reality; the reality of Love. In Christian thought, Christ is the ‘I AM’, the Being, the Existent (‘fē-et-shop’ in Coptic or ‘ho ōn’ in Greek, also see Col 1:7) – He is the Creative Love that called all things into being from nothing, and so He is the ground of all being. When we fell away from God, we fell away from the source of our being, and so our world became fickle and full of illusions and false realities. As CS Lewis put it, ‘we are on the outside of the world.’ True reality is the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, the home to which we are all travelling – we are ‘sojourners’ in this world of cruelty, changeability and hatred; our true home, the ocean floor beneath the volatile ocean of this world, lies behind the Veil of the Temple: the world of unending, world-creating love. And Christ is our anchor to the ocean floor, our connection to ultimate reality, the forerunner who passed through the Veil. He left the stability of His own deathless reality and descended into this dark world of shadows, so that He could draw us back into His Father’s bosom.

“At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.” ~ CS Lewis

An anchor between two fish – the Greek above the anchor reads, “fish of the living” (ΙΧΘΥΣ of course being an anagram for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’)

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7 thoughts on “Early Christian Symbols: The Anchor

  1. This is wonderful, thank you! I love the image of the anchor as the sure hope – as you pointed out – in the ground of being. I’m getting tingles just thinking about it! You wove this whole piece together wonderfully I thought. 🙂

    • Thanks Laura 🙂 It’s a shame that so few of these symbols have survived into modern use! They really are quite beautiful. If you ever get the chance to visit some Christian catacombs in Rome, I highly recommend that you do! It’s a very powerful experience (although TRAGICALLY you’re not allowed to take pictures!!!)
      In XC

      • Yes, we’ll have to get these old symbols resurrected! I’m looking forward to the others too. 🙂 And thank you for providing yet another reason why I have to go to Rome. I definitely didn’t have enough as it was… 😀 What was it like when you were there?

      • It was wonderful! Full of little nooks and crannies with weird and wonderful things. We really don’t have that sense of ‘layers’ in Sydney … everything’s only been here for a couple of centuries. Every street in Rome has been continually built and rebuilt for more than 2000 years!
        But I definitely loved the catacombs best … it was such an eerie experience. One of the things that surprised me was that in the catacombs, there was lots of Greek text written in Latin letters and vice versa – which really brought home how authentic the place was. The epitaphs were written at a time when Greek and Roman culture were still playfully intermingling with one another …

      • Do you plan to go to Rome soon?

      • Laura says:

        I do! I think I may go in February… assuming I have enough money and everything else in my life falls neatly into place (ha!). I’ve been once before (and before I became Catholic) but we didn’t get to the catacombs.

  2. […] I finally found an anchor similar to this one above. I loved the thin lines, minimal design, and full of meaning. […]

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