Month: March 2016

A Spiritual Compass

Image (21)Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Bless the bed that I lie on

Four corners to my bed

Four angels round my head…

        What does this ancient children’s prayer and blessing of four corner bedposts have to do with our church?

Look up at the tops of the four columns supporting the dome, and you’ll see the four Gospel-writing Evangelists represented in the round mosaics on the triangular pendentives. Since we don’t know what the Evangelists looked like, the mosaics show the Christian Tetramorph  — creatures derived from Ezekiel and Revelations and popularized by Saint Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin in the 5th century) – to symbolize their different writings:

Matthew is shown as a human figure with wings, or an angel, representing Christ’s human nature. Matthew’s Gospel begins with the story of the angel that appeared to St. Joseph in a dream, and describes Christ’s human lineage in the family of Joseph.

Mark is the lion who proclaims the dignity of Christ  (Also, incidentally, the patron of Venice, Italy). The lion is an “animal of the desert,” and Mark’s Gospel begins with John the Baptist as the “voice crying out in the desert”  — the herald announcing the arrival of royalty. As the emblem of monarchy, the lion represents Christ the King.

Luke is the ox – a traditional sacrificial animal. His Gospel begins with Zacariah, the father of John the Baptist, going into the temple to make a sacrifice. The symbol reminds us of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

John employs  the eagle as the symbol of divinity because his Gospel begins in the heavens before Jesus came to earth: “In the beginning was the word…” The skyborne creature represents the divine nature of Jesus and his Ascension.

         The rhyme at the beginning of this piece dates back to 17th century England. In addition to making it easy to remember the names of the Evangelists, it hints at their architectural significance. Churches were often carefully oriented to the compass. Byzantine architecture, from the Eastern church – the inspiration for our Church architecture — was especially heavy on symbolism, sometimes placing one Evangelist on each corner support of a dome, at each cardinal direction, to represent the Gospel spreading out to the four corners of the world. If you check out our compass points, they’re pretty close!


The Spear of Saint Thaddeus

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Mosaic panels around the nave of our church feature names and symbols of the Twelve Apostles at Pentecost: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Thomas, James, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon,  Matthias (who replaced Judas), and …Thaddeus?

Saint Thaddeus, near the parking lot door, is actually a surname or nickname: the saint’s real name was Judas. Not Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus. Other Judas! So as not to confuse folks, the “good” Judas was called Thaddeus in the old Latin Rite. Today, he is generally known as St. Jude or St. Jude Thaddeus in the Roman Catholic church, and Saint Thaddeus in the Orthodox churches.

You may recognize St. Jude as the Patron of Lost Causes, invoked for impossible tasks. One of his letters, reproduced in the New Testament, exhorted the faithful to persevere and hold fast to their belief in times of trouble – showing his connection with desperate times and circumstances. Pilgrims who visited his shrine at the Vatican reported many intercessions, and Saint Bernard and Saint Brigid of Sweden are both said to have had visions asking them to accept St. Jude as the patron of extreme situations.

Some suggest that the saint was neglected for many years, due to his unfortunate name, and that may also have contributed to his identification with lost causes. Dedication to Saint Jude is a fairly modern phenomenon in this country: a national shrine in Baltimore, run by the Pallottines, began devotions in 1917; and one in Chicago, run by the Claretians, began in 1929. Both dates are long after our church was built.

Our 1940 Anniversary Book describes our mosaic as showing a “lance as his emblem,” “to remind us of the instrument by which he suffered martyrdom.” St. Jude Thaddeus is thought to have been martyred in Armenia, Persia, or Syria, and little is known about how he died. His symbol is more usually a club or a halberd — a long-handled axe — looking a lot like the object in our mosaic. There is a lance connection, though: in the Armenian Orthodox Church, the saint was said to have brought a sacred relic —  an ancient lance supposed to have pierced the side of Jesus on the cross — with him to Armenia, where it remains in a museum today (The Vatican also claims an ancient lance).

Speaking of things lost and found:  look up Saint Jude on Wikipedia, and you’ll see our mosaic inscription for St. Thaddeus, down at the bottom of the page!