Brandon's Notepad

March 24, 2017

What Does “Catholic” Mean Anyway?


My recent post covering the five Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch to the Churches in Asia gave rise to some interesting discussions online, including one about the origin of the word “Catholic”. I knew the general answer, that the word means “universal” and that Ignatius was indeed the earliest author to use it, but I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted to dig deeper. Here is the result of my research.

Ignatius of Antioch

A discourse on the meaning of the word ‘catholic’ would hardly be complete without some mention of Saint Ignatius of Antioch who used it to describe the Church in his letter to the Smyrnæans in approximately A.D. 108. His message to the believers in Smyrna was clear: be subject to your bishop in all things concerning belief. This is the earliest known writing in which the Church is referred to as ‘universal’ and that leads many people to the conclusion that Ignatius was the first to give the Church her name, or at least the first to coin the phrase. Nothing in the text, however, supports the hypothesis that Ignatius was trying to do either. It appears more likely that he was using a common adjective to describe the whole body of believers everywhere, and that the phrase caught on amongst early Christian writers.

Here is an excerpt taken from the eighth chapter of Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnæans (taken from The key line of interest has been emphasized and the phrase Catholic Church rendered in bold:

Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. [Smyrnæans 8]

Here is the emphasized line in Greek (from TextExcavation), again with Catholic Church in bold:

οπου αν φανη ο επισκοπος, εκει το πληθος εστω, ωσπερ οπου αν η Χριστος Ιησους, εκει η καθολικη εκκλησια.

I would take the time to provide a word-for-word translation of the entire excerpt, but it’s not really necessary for this discussion. There are online lexicons and translators for that purpose, so if you are not familar with Greek, now might be a good time to check out some of these tools.


Let’s start with the noun in this phrase. This is the less controversial of the two words. Almost always rendered in English as ‘church’, the word ekklēsía really just means assembly or gathering, as in a group of people assembled together. It was the term used to refer to the principal assembly of the Athenian democracy over 400 years before Christ walked the Earth. So, which assembly of believers Ignatius is talking about? Since the letter was written for the Chirstians in Smyrna, is he only referring to that assembly? Obviously, no. Ignatius clarified his message by modifying this noun with the adjective καθολικη.


This adjective is actually a combination of two root words: κατά (katá) + ὅλος (hólos). According to Strong’s Concordance, κατά (2596) is a preposition that can have various meanings, such as “down from”, “throughout”, and “according to”. Likewise, ὅλος (3650) is an adjective that means “all”, “whole”, or “entire”. Note how the words are combined into a single adjective, καθολικη. When used to modify the word ekklēsía, one might read the phrase as “according to the entire assembly” or “throughout the whole church”. It requires no stretch of thought to see why the word “universal” is used in translation.

To take this one step further, please note the spelling of the word. The suffix identifies the word’s declension, which is a fancy way of saying number, case, and gender in a single word. Taking a glance at the Wiktionary entry for καθολικός, we can easily determine that for three grammatical cases, this variant of the word modifies a female noun (which εκκλησια is) and is singluar. Ignatius is talking about one church. This implies a level of unity beyond that of the local church and her bishop. Ignatius did not consider the Christian communities to be a loose federation of independent congregations, at least when it came to matters of faith.

Another Look

Now that we have examined the key words in question, let’s reconstruct the line in English based on the Greek above. Again, I am not going to explain every word as they can easily be referenced online. I used the Greek Dictionary Headword Search engine in the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University to translate the line as follows:

The place where lights the bishop, there the multitude is one; even as, where is Christ Jesus, there is the whole assembly throughout.

Ignatius is clearly drawing an analogy that makes perfect sense in his plea for the Churches in Asia to remain in unity with their respective bishops who are, themselves, in unity insofar as the teaching of the faith is concerned. What’s more, this concept of the whole assembly of believers being ever-present with Christ is an expression of what Mircea Eliade would call sacred time and space, though whether Ignatius intended to convey this idea or if it was a product of divine inspiration will be left for discussion at another time.

Word Usage

Some make the argument that Ignatius coined the word καθολικη, based primarily on the observation that the word is not used in the Bible to describe the Church…in fact, it doesn’t appear at all in the Bible. (Such people also tend to be Fundamentalist Christians who only know the word “Catholic” as a proper name and who want to prove that the Church’s universal authority is illegitimate by claiming that Ignatius invented the word after the age of the Apostles and therefore it isn’t “Biblical”.) However, if the word καθολικη (or more properly, καθολικός) existed prior to the time of Christ and the Apostles (and was even found to be commonly used), then there should be instances of it in other Greek texts that predate the New Testament. Whether or not these texts are part of Sacred Scripture is, of course, immaterial, but it never hurts to start there.

The words κατά (2596) and ὅλος (3739) both appear numerous times in the New Testament (480 and 1411 respectively). The word καθό (2526), which means “according to”, is found four times (Rom 8:26, twice in 2 Cor 8:12, and 1 Peter 4:13). The word καθόλου (2527), which is an adverb meaning “entirely” or “at all”, is found once, in Acts 4:18: they instructed them not to teach at all in the name of Jesus. Browsing through Hatch & Redpath’s 1897 Concordance to the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), a similar pattern emerges: many references to the root words, a handful to καθό and καθόλου, and none for καθολικός. So, the root words and some similar words appear in the Bible, but the specific usage we are seeking here is not present.

A search of other Greek texts proves to be more fruitful. Again, using the Greek Dictionary Headword Search engine in the Perseus Digital Library, a search for words starting with καθολ resulted in over sixty hits across eleven works. Nine instances were found in the Histories of Polybius (200-118 B.C.), two of which concern making a “general assertion” (καθολικῆς ἀποφάσεως). The geopgrapher Strabo (63 B.C.-A.D.24; thus immediately prior to Jesus’ public ministry) used it in his work on Geography. The excerpt …ὥστ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἔνεστι καθολικῶς εἰπεῖν ἐπὶ τῶν ἀπεριλήπτων τὸ πλῆθος… [Strab. 17.3] is translated in the accompanying English translation as “…so that it cannot be asserted generally of places indefinite in number…”, but could probably be reduced to “…it cannot be generally said…” So much for the notion that Ignatius was the original inventor of this word.

There are examples of the word being used by writers contemporary to Ignatius as well. The Stoic Philosopher Epictetus (A.D. 50-135) used the word six times in his Discourses. One sample drawn from that work is καθολικοῦ μέμνησο [book2, chapter 2], which is rendered in the accompanying English version as “Remember, then, the general rule…” but which could probably be simplified as “Remember generally…”. In a work called Tetrabiblos by Claudius Ptolemy (A.D. 100-170; yes, the same Ptolemy famous for his geocentric model of the universe), there can be found thirteen separate instances of the word with usages similar to those found in Polybius, such as to describe a calling, a custom, etc. Two more instances can be found in M. Antonius Imperator Ad Se Ipsum by Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121-180). And so on and so forth. Even if the Perseus Digital Library contains a complete collection of ancient Greek texts, there is proof enough that the compound word καθολικός was common in ancient Greek texts, making Ignatius’ single use of it even less extraordinary.

Incidentally, the largest number of search hits (21 occurences) arose from the Church History according to Eusebius (~A.D. 260-341), six modifing the “assembly” (same usage as Ignatius), four in reference to letters or letter writers (i.e. epistles, as in the Catholic Epistles of Peter, Jude, James, and John), and the remainder modifying various other words to describe general knowledge, direction, order, etc. So, while this adjective was starting to grow in usage, it was still not used to refer exclusively to the Church, even in the Fourth Centruy writings of the Church Fathers.


Ignatius was not attempting to give a name to a universal church, or to coin a new phrase, but was simply using a common adjective to describe the collective of all Christian believers everywhere. In the long run, of course, that is what eventually happened. “Catholic Church” is a proper name that, today, specifically identifies an assembly of people around the world that is rooted in a common belief, and whose “headquarters” (if you want to call it that) is located in Rome. It is slightly more complicated than that, of course, because the Roman Church is just one of many that belong to this more universal collection of Churches, but then, this makes Ignatius’ message even more understandable for modern Catholics.

Addendum: New Questions

Doing this research has brought to mind two additional questions that will make for some interesting study in the future.

First, at what point in history did the word ‘Catholic’ become part of the proper name of the Church, and thus an adjective that exclusively associates whatever it modifies as belonging to the same? One might expect to find this usage prevailent in the writings of the Protestant Reformers and possibly even in Catholic writings in the years leading up to the Reformation. I have seen some claims online that explain how the Church didn’t have to qualify itself as Catholic until Protestant thought became widespread and uncontrollable. Perhaps this was the same reason καθολικός became so popular amongst the Church Fathers, as they were often combating the early heresies and wrote about how these strange beliefs contradicted the Church’s universal teachings.

Second, why does καθολικός not appear in Sacred Scripture? This may be much harder to answer, as it requires a deep understanding of ancient Greek and how the language evolved over time. It may have to do with the level of sophistication with which the various authors wrote. All of the examples given above where the word appears are from works written by scholars, philosophers, scientists, and even an Emperor! Their education, and thus their, command of the Greek language was undoubtedly superior to those common men who roughly incribed the stories of the Apostles while in hiding for fear of Roman persecution. Likewise, translation of ancient Hebrew writings, most of which had already been passed from age to age as oral traditions, into Greek may have dictated the use of simple language.

Perhaps these questions have already been answered in some scholarly works just waiting for me to discover.


July 28, 2016

Catholic Mass Bible Readings Coverage


Do Catholics read the Bible? You bet they do! But some other Christians want you to think otherwise. Here’s a good lesson on how to lie with infographics.

The Accusation

Catholics are often accused of claiming to be Christian and yet not reading the Bible. In one respect this is true, because the average Catholic is less likely to sit down and read the Bible from cover to cover in the same way an Evangelical Christian might. Like anything else, Catholic and Evangelical populations could be surveyed and the results analyzed statistically, and in doing so you will likely find plenty of people who do not fit the stereotype: Catholics that read their Bibles all the time and Evangelicals that don’t.

In Reality

What Evangelicals don’t realize is that Catholics hear much more of the Bible than they read. There are four readings (OT, Psalm, NT, Gospel) assigned for each holy day of obligation (i.e. all Sundays and certain feast days). There are also three “cycles” arranged such that the Gospel of Matthew is covered in Cycle A, Mark in Cycle B, and Luke in Cycle C. The Gospel of John is spread across certain days throughout the year, but especially in the seasons of Lent and Easter.

The Infographic

A year or so ago, someone I follow on Twitter posted an infographic, which can be found here on imgur, that plots the readings throughout the liturgical the year. The imgur post includes a bit of explanatory information about how to read the graph, followed by the following note to the reader: “Notice all of the blank space. Only 14.2% of the entire bible is read during mass over the course of three years.” Yikes! Only 14.2%? That’s not a lot!

Something’s Not Quite Right

Yes, the graph shows a lot of blank space; however, notice that time is depicted on the X-axis. This means that the plotted area does not actually represent the pure volume of content. How should this graph be read then?


I decided to conduct a little test to see how accurate the 14.2% claim actually is. To do this, the following assumptions were made:

  1. The graph is intended to be an accurate representation of the data.
    Which is the claim being made, right?
  2. Each of the black hash marks represent one holy day.
    There are 52 Sundays and about 5 non-Sunday Holy Days of Obligation, making 57 total. The year is depicted as a 286-pixel block, which means each mark should be 5.02 pixels wide on average. Indeed, spot-checking reveals that most are either 6 or 7 pixels wide, with a few as short as 4 pixels.
  3. Each of the black hash marks represent a unique section of Scripture.
    It is unclear exactly how the volume of content is presented here. Do the marks represent whole chapters? Individual stories? Segments of verses? But it doesn’t really matter, because the next assumption is that…
  4. The height of the plotted area represents 100% coverage of Bible content.
    The plotted area is 741 pixels in height. According to multiple sources on the Web, the Protestant Bible contains 1,189 chapters, which is greater than 741, so each mark can’t represent a chapter exactly. The Catholic Bible contains a few additional books, but not enough to allow for each pixel to represent two chapters.


The test required some simple graphical manipulation of the picture using a paint program (in the case I used GIMP). There were three basic steps:

  1. Remove time from the graph.
    This was done by extending each of the black hash marks to fully cover the year in which it was found. I did this for all marks in all three years, and then cut most of each year out, leaving only a thin ribbon to represent it’s coverage.
  2. Find the cumulative coverage.
    Using the layers feature, I moved a copy of each year’s content volume to form a column of combined (or cumulative) coverage.
  3. Compress the volume to determine percentage.
    This was tedious, but I removed all blank space between the bands of black on a copy of the cumulative column, resulting in a 315-pixel bar, and placed it on top of a grey, 741-pixel tall background.

The Result

My cumulative coverage columns are shown to the right of the original graph below. The columns for Cycles A, B, and C are labeled accordingly, the combined coverage column is labeled with a Sigma, and the percentage coverage column with a percent sign. The result is that a whopping 42.5% of the Bible is read during Mass on Sundays and Holy Days alone.


Notice that there is essentially full coverage of the Gospels over three years, nearly full coverage of the rest of the New Testament, a heavy concentration on certain Old Testament books (e.g. Genesis, Exodus, major prophets like Isaiah), and lighter coverage on books that even Protestants don’t pay much attention to (e.g. Numbers, Kings, Chronicles, minor prophets, etc.).


The poster’s claim that only 14.2% of the Bible is read during days of obligation is incorrect. This is obviously not a perfect test, because there are a lot of assumptions and unknowns about how the original author is depicting the data; however, the margin between 14.2% and 42.5% is far too wide to be simple error.

Is the imgur poster trying to mislead you, assuming you will simply take the graphic at face value? Maybe. I have considered the possibility that the 14.2% claim was based on the percentage of the plotted area covered by black pixels, in which case the poster actually misinterpreted the graph. It is not clear whether or not the person who posted the graphic on imgur and the author of the graphic are the same person.

Wait, There’s More…

This infographic covered readings for holy days on which Catholics are required (yes, not expected, but required by Church law) to attend so that they may hear them, live them, and share them with others. What is not covered are the readings for the rest of the week! Most Catholics don’t attend daily Mass, but those that do will hear even more of the Bible! You can visit the Liturgy page on the USCCB website for more details on that.

October 3, 2015

Year’s Minds Calendar

Filed under: Christianity — Brandon @ 5:46 pm
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“Year’s mind” is the commemoration of a deceased member of the faithful on the anniversary of his or her death. This is often a celebration of the Holy Mass (a requiem), or may simply be a formal prayer ritual. Strictly speaking, this commemoration is held one year after death, though it is not uncommon that some formal remembrance be made on the anniversaries thereafter. Certainly, it is the duty of all faithful Catholics to keep the souls of the departed in their prayers, whether or not they are in need of intercession. Prayer is never wasted as a result of our simple ignorance, and the graces dispensed for this act of spiritual mercy will flow to whoever needs it as God sees fit.

What better way to remind yourself to pray for your loved ones than to set up a year’s mind calendar in your calendar software? Many people record birthdays, and this works basically the same way. It can be recorded as an all-day event or a 10-minute appointment with God — either way, the important thing is that it catches your attention and brings you to prayer. Added bonus: set it up as an annually recurring event and you won’t have to remember to copy your calendar each year.

January 5, 2015

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Filed under: Christianity — Brandon @ 12:00 pm
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Today, January 5th, is the twelfth day of the Christmas season according to the Church’s liturgical calendar. To celebrate, I decided to write a little post on various aspects of this observance.

‘Tis The Season…

In the Catholic Church, the Twelve Days of Christmas is a time of celebration to commemorate the Nativity of Jesus. The dates always fall on December 25th through January 5th, and is immediately followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. In the Latin (Roman) Rite, the first day (December 25th) is a Holy Day of Obligation; whereas, it is required for the faithful in the Eastern Churches to observe January 6th as the primary Christmas celebration, whereupon it is the Baptism of Jesus that receives the focus, and not the visitation of the Magi. Anglicans and Lutherans also celebrate (or at least recognize) this season, the major difference being that for them the Twelve Day period defines the entirety if Christmastide, which (currently) extends through the Sunday after Epiphany for Catholics.

…To Be Jolly

Western secular culture has tried to change the meaning of the Twelve Days over time. Americans especially love a crescendo, so the Twelve Days are often represented as a sort of countdown to Christmas. If there are going to be twelve days in Christmas, then certainly the last will be the biggest and loudest celebration, and that, as everyone knows, falls on the 25th of December by tradition. This is the same cultural movement that favors “countdown calendars” to Advent calendars (though in a way, that’s really what the Advent calendar is). In this context, however, the end of the countdown marks the day when, through the receipt of material goods, one can reasonably expect to feel the most jolly (as opposed to being joyous over the gift of hope for eternal salvation given by an almighty and merciful God). And where might the idea of linking the Twelve Days with progressive gift-giving have originated?

The Song

Oh right, the song. You know, the one about the singer’s true love granting an increasingly elaborate and expensive array of gifts to win her (gender assumed) favor. To be honest, I have never liked that song, if for no other reason than that I find the repetition and even the tune itself extremely annoying. Not to mention that it has nothing to do with Jesus and the real meaning of Christmas. I’m not trying to be a humbug here — quite the opposite in fact!

My interest in the song did pique when I received an e-mail that was making the rounds a few years ago about “The Real Meaning to 12 Days of Christmas”. It explained how the song was written as a tool to catechize young Catholic children in England where Catholicism had been outlawed. The singer’s “true love” is God, of course, and the singer is the Church / the believer / the Christian. Each gift is suppose to represent a gift from God:

  1. Partridge in a pear tree :: Jesus Christ who died on a tree
  2. Turtle doves :: the Old and New Testaments
  3. French hens :: faith, hope, and love
  4. Calling birds :: the four Gospels
  5. Golden rings :: the Pentateuch
  6. Geese a-laying :: the six days of creation
  7. Swans a swimming :: the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit
  8. Maids a milking :: the Beatitudes
  9. Ladies dancing :: nine fruits of the Holy Spirit
  10. Lords a-leaping :: the Ten Commandments
  11. Pipers piping :: the eleven faithful disciples (sans Judas)
  12. Drummers drumming :: the twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed

At first blush this sounds great, but as it turns out, this whole idea is a fabrication of modern times. This should be obvious in light of two bits of information. First, the order (and even the number) of gifts varied each time the song was published and the lyrics we use today are from the 1909 version; thus, the use of the gifts as a mnemonic device for memorizing the theological points listed above is anachronistic. Second, none of the items listed above would separate Catholics from Protestants, so what would be the value in secretly encoding them into song? Perhaps, I will dig a little deeper into why this rumor was started, and if I do, I will update this post.

October 15, 2014

Through Faith, Not Works

Filed under: Christianity — Brandon @ 7:25 am
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Are good works required for salvation or is faith alone sufficient?

I cannot understand how someone who not only (supposedly) reads the Bible but claims it to be their sole deposit of faith can deny or downplay the role of good works in salvation. Whenever I enter into a discussion (read: debate) on this topic, the other person almost invariably turns first to Ephesians 2:8-9, which states that salvation is a gift from God and not something that we can earn (which is true). While they are still glowing with pride for being able to recite the passage verbatim, I ask them what verse 10 says. Unless they have a Bible with them, they usually don’t know. (Go ahead, look it up) It says that God created us to do good works. And these are not random acts of kindness, but tests of faith that he established for us to encounter ahead of time. Then, if I am prepared, I present them with any number of passages that illustrate the importance of performing good works, the most powerful of which (IMHO) is 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, in which St. Paul states, “…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2 NIV)

One of several typical (conditioned) responses will follow. The most common is that the performance of good works is simply a sign that the person is already saved, a notion which in my mind portrays Christians as a mindless-yet-extremely-loving swarm of zombies. I ask how they reconcile that belief with Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt 25:31-46) and they tell me that someone who claims to be saved but does not perform good works is really not saved at all, never was. If they are on their game, they then cite Matthew, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”, to which I reply with the remainder of the verse, “…but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 7:21 NIV) Sometimes, I will ask if they believe that love is an exercise of free will. Seeing where I am headed with this question, the reply is often that those who are saved are moved by God (the Holy Spirit in particular) to do good works, so no, it is God’s will and not free will. How then did Adam and Eve, who started off in God’s grace, choose to disobey? To not love God enough to keep his one and only commandment (not to eat the fruit of that one tree)? To dispute free will is to call the entire doctrine of original sin into question. It is useful to remind them that Paul told the Philippians to obey and “work out” their salvation, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Php 2:12-13 NIV) Sorry, the free will of believers is not up for negotiation.

As a last resort, the other person may circle back around to Ephesians 2:8-9 (despite the fact that I agreed with them the first time and despite what was said about verse 10) and they will make the claim that the Catholic church bases salvation on good works alone. At last, I have an opportunity to teach them something, for what holds true for so many tenets of Catholic teaching applies here too. This is not a matter of faith or works but one of faith and works. Both are required, because in reality, they are not two separate things, but one thing. I recently heard a priest give an excellent and concise explanation of this in a sermon. He said that any external sign or work must be a reflection of an interior conversion of the soul. A non-Catholic Christian will usually appreciate it when a Catholic recognizes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23 NIV) This means, of course, that we constantly have opportunities to undergo conversion, to change our minds, to experience μετάνοια (metanoia). Giving ourselves to others (our time, our love, not just our money) is the way by which we are able to see our true selves and to walk toward God. Doing good works is not filling out a spiritual bingo card. It is not simply the expression of the soul already saved, but of the soul in the act of being saved.

September 21, 2014

Crucifying Jesus All Over Again

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Have you ever been told that the Roman Catholic Church crucifies Christ over and over again with each celebration of the Mass? I really don’t mean to rant, but…

I’m tired of hearing other Christians preach that Catholics crucify Jesus ‘again’ in the celebration of the Mass. After all, it is plainly stated in the Bible that Jesus died on the cross once for all for the forgiveness of sins, and that no new sacrifice can be made. (Hebrews 6-10; yes, read it all) I think these other Christians would do well to read the first seven books of Leviticus, where they would learn that not all sacrifices decreed by God were for the atonement of sin. If the Mass (specifically, the Eucharist) was intended to be a sacrifice for atonement, then I would agree that the Church missed the mark somewhere along the way; however, the Mass is not a sacrifice for atonement at all, but one of thanksgiving. That is what the Greek word eucharsitia means. Atonement could only be made by Jesus, but we celebrate in the sacrificial feast at his command.

In reading these chapters, they might also learn that sacrifices are not simple affairs. A fellowship offering, for example, can include not only an animal sacrifice (Lev 3), but also an offering of loaves of bread (Lev 7:11-21). Two Jewish celebrations that together commemorate their liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, fit this pattern. The Paschal Lamb must be eaten on the night of the sacrifice, but the feast is perpetuated for seven days through the consumption of bread prepared for this purpose. Likewise Jesus died on the cross to free mankind from the bondage of sin, and perpetuated for all time the feast at the last supper using a very special bread (c.f. John 6). It must be perpetuated for all time because it is the final atonement. Paul asks rhetorically, “is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ [and] is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16 NIV) Indeed, the sacrifice of Jesus is complete; therefore, let us keep the feast.

For anyone who has never encountered anti-Catholic rhetoric on a grand scale, please read The Mass Insults Jesus Christ. The author relies heavily on the same chapters from Hebrews that I reference above, though the verses have been taken out of context and contorted to “support” his thesis. Of all of the holes in his argument, I will expound upon one for the sake of illustration. Toward the bottom of the first large section, Hebrews 6:6 is quoted (I love how he makes sure the reader knows that the text is from the NAB, as though he caught Catholics contradicting their own Bible). This quote is then followed by his own analysis (emphasis retained):

Notice, in this last Scripture, St. Paul’s statement that repentance is impossible for anyone who is continually recrucifying Jesus Christ again and again! Jesus Christ died once and for all [eternally]. He is not to be recrucified again and again for any reason. As long as He is being so recrucified, it is impossible to come to repentance. Therefore, any person who continually practices the Mass cannot be saved as long as they continue!!

Read that same passage (which actually begins with verse 4, by the way) in the NIV translation (used heavily by Protestants) and you will find that it obviously means something totally different from what the author suggests. The falling away refers to apostasy. True repentance of sin is impossible for he who had once been filled with the Spirit and the fire of Christ but who has since rejected him altogether (e.g. became atheist or something other than Christian). In other words, it’s not possible to reignite that fire genuinely if it has been purposely put out once already. To try is to crucify Jesus again. And while I understand that the author considers Catholicism as a “falling away” from “true enlightenment”, his analysis of the text is just plain wrong. There is no mention of the Mass whatsoever (except perhaps the reference to tasting the heavenly gift in verse 4), nor is there any word indicating that the recrucifying is a “continual” process (yes, I checked the Greek to be sure). What’s more, the tone of finality in the passage doesn’t jive with the author’s notion that (reading between the lines here with tongue planted firmly in cheek), if those Catholics would just stop going to Mass, then maybe some of them could finally repent and be saved!

August 28, 2014

The Vatican Diaries

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The Vatican Diaries
This is a short review of The Vatican Diaries, written by John Thavis, narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner.

John Thavis, a native of Minnesota, enjoyed a thirty-year career as a journalist covering the Vatican for Catholic News Service. He was first hired in Rome in 1978 as a headline writer, and after returning home for a brief time, he decided to relocate the family to Italy, where he soon found a home at CNS. He retired in 2012 and moved back to the States to focus on his own writing fulltime. The Vatican Diaries was published in early 2013.

What a book! Thavis shares his unique perspective on life in the Vatican, drawing from various events of two papacies, both mundane and spectacular. His main themes are these: that the Vatican isn’t the well-oiled machine that many people think it is, and that just about every news story that emanates from within its walls is usually backed by another, more obscure, and usually more interesting story.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this work. Early on, the sarcasm meter spiked so high that I started to wonder if this was an honest work or some sort of anti-Catholic rhetoric written by a particularly cynical insider. I had nothing to indicate that the author was even Catholic! He told of the frustrations that journalists face when following the Supreme Pontiff around the globe, and how even if the press corp misses an event altogether, the stories still get written, often using secondary sources like televised event coverage. After a while, though, it started to sound like this guy really knew his stuff. Some stories you just can’t make up. I eventually decided that the sarcasm was just a product of his style. After all, journalists are supposed to write provocative pieces, balanced or not, right?

Many of the topics covered will not come as a surprise to anyone who pays even mild attention to Catholic headlines. There is ample (and vividly frank) discussion about various scandals of course, particularly the recent ones concerning priestly abuse. Also covered are the schismatic foundation of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), impediments in the cause for the canonization of Pope Pius XII, and Pope John Paul II’s visit with the rock band U2. Some stories, however, cover very obscure topics and are not the stuff of mainstream journalism. These stories are intricately detailed and are admittedly interesting, but were surely included not for their widespread appeal, but because Thavis himself found them amusing. One such story (perhaps my favorite in the whole book) describes how a vast Roman burial ground was discovered during excavation for a new Vatican underground parking garage. Is it always this interesting when archaeology meets politics? Thavis’ admiration for John Paul II cannot be veiled, but you can tell he wasn’t quite so enthused with Benedict XVI; well, that is until he finally discovered what really made the German prelate tick…but, you’ll just have to read the book to find out what that is.

Malcolm Hillgartner’s narration is excellent. Non-fiction books are very often narrated by the author, especially those written by politicians, professors, or others whose professions require a high capacity in public speaking. I thought I was listening to Thavis reading his own work, and it was only after I noted the steady cadence in this recording that I looked to the jacket for verification that I was listening to a professional narrator. Hillgartner’s performance is in no way flat. He puts emphasis on all the right words and is able to keep the listener engaged, which is why I first assumed it was Thavis.

August 6, 2014

August 6, 2014: Conclave Facts, Catholic America, Project Data, Toothpick City

20 Fun Facts About Papal Elections
This post by Dr. Taylor Marshall will undoubtedly come in handy someday. It’s a distillation of interesting facts from the history of Papal conclaves. I’m surprised how many questions I had to field from non-Catholic friends during the last two elections (and how much misinformation I had to correct). I wish I had seen this earlier!

If America Were A Fully Catholic Country…
While we are on his site, here is an article that I printed off a while back that’s been hanging around my cubical ever since. It’s a nice thought, but it’s predicated on the assumption that Catholics will actually start behaving (and voting) like Catholics. Making that happen is going to take a lot of work and prayer indeed!

3 Kinds of Data To Help Avoid Project Management Failure
The success of a project is more subjective than you might think. This post by Ashley Coolman explains how data from past projects, the members of the project team, and resource consumption can help define better project guidelines and improve the chances of success.

Rolling Through The Bay
I dug this one up while cleaning out some old e-mails. Fourth-generation San Franciscan Scott Weaver built an amazing sculpture of the City by the Bay out of toothpicks. His website includes a brief about the history of the sculpture, and the Exploratorium has posted a video on YouTube that shows the artist sending ping pong balls on tours through various parts of town.

January 3, 2014

The Christmas Candle

I had the pleasure of seeing The Christmas Candle over the Thanksgiving weekend. Based on the book by Max Lucado, this great little production tells the story of a minister in Nineteenth Century England and his mission to supplant a local Christmas superstition in the village of Gladbury. This gem of a film will likely become a new Christmas tradition in our household.

And for those who knew I was writing this, thank you for waiting so patiently. I did not intend for it to take more than a month to write.


See the movie, read the book if you like, and then come back here and read my analysis. It will probably make far more sense if you are familiar with the story.

* * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *   SPOILER ALERT   * * *

Reverend David Richmond, a charismatic preacher from London has suffered a terrible family tragedy and has given up the pulpit to work in the Salvation Army soup line. He is offered the pastorship of the Parish of Gladbury by Lady Camdon, a woman of means. When he arrives, he must contend with the local legend of the Christmas Candle. Generations before, the village chandler was visited by an angel who blessed a single candle. When the candle was given to someone in need with the instruction to “light it and pray”, the prayer was answered with a Christmas miracle. The angel returned to bless a candle every twenty-five years and each time a miracle followed. The year of Richmond’s arrival happens to fall on the year of the next visitation. Hard times have fallen on Gladbury and the villagers are desperate for personal miracles. Edward and Bea Haddington, the current generation of chandlers, receive many requests for the Christmas Candle and are faced with the task of choosing the recipient. Meanwhile, friction with the Haddingtons mounts as Reverend Richmond preaches the message of faith and charity in opposition to the superstition of the Candle. He shows the villagers how to produce miracles for one another through good works and the power of prayer. As expected, the angel visits the Haddington candle shop and blesses a single candle; however, when the bumbling Edward Haddington knocks over the rack of candles, the Christmas Candle is lost amongst twenty-nine other identical candles. Their only recourse is to give away all of the candles, thereby ensuring that someone will receive the Christmas miracle. At the Christmas Eve church service, it is tradition for the recipient of the Candle to express gratitude for the miracle they received, but when a multitude stand, each thinking that he or she had been the recipient of the one Candle, the Haddingtons must explain what happened. As it turns out, the blessed Candle had been given to none other than Reverend Richmond himself, unbeknownst to him. The service is interrupted with the news of a wagon accident in which a young mother and her child are left trapped in the cold. A search ensues, and Richmond lights the Christmas Candle to provide light. He must have been praying, even if only in his heart, for a brilliant light begins to emanate from the Candle, providing light and safe travel through the blustery weather. The woman and child, which happened to be the Haddington’s would-be daughter-in-law and only grandchild, are rescued. There are several important side plots, such as the courtship of Reverend Richmond and Emily Barstow, the introduction of electricity and the lightbulb to Gladbury, the debate between the Haddingtons as to whether or not they should keep the Candle for themselves, the loss of faith of the Haddingtons’ son, a fire in the Church, etc.

My Initial Reaction

Honestly, when we made the decision to see this movie, I wasn’t expecting much. I hadn’t seen any trailers for the movie. I was simply trusting my wife’s ability to pick a good film. I knew Max Lucado’s name from his books, not because I’ve read them, but because they are often prominently displayed in local bookstores. At best I hoped for a quaint yet inspirational Christmas movie having little to do with the birth of the Lord, and at worse a blatant attack on traditional liturgy-based Christianity. Boy, was I in for a surprise! When the credits finally rolled, I felt like I had been sitting in church for an hour and a half. I caught myself before nearly genuflecting in the aisle, which made me feel pretty foolish until my wife shared that she had felt the same urge. The film occupied my thoughts for several days. As I tried to get my head around the whole plot, I read a few reviews online only to find that others had completely different interpretations. I ended up with questions about the author’s intended message, so I decided to turn to the book for some answers.

The Book

Originally published in 2006, the latest reprint weighs in at just over 200 pages, but the small format and generous spacing make this an easy read during a long session at the library. The basic premise is the same in the book as in the movie, but almost all of the details are different. The year is 1864 and not 1890. The name of the village is Gladstone instead of Gladbury. Reverend Richmond is a sharp graduate from Oxford and not a charismatic former preacher from London. The tragedy that shakes his belief that God continues to work through miracles is the loss of a friend in a wagon accident after a night of excessive drinking, and not the loss of wife and child from consumption (tuberculosis). The Haddington family are still the village candlemakers, but the Hopewells in the movie are the Barstows in the book, and the Barstow family, as they are presented in the movie, do not exist. Emily Barstow, the love interest, plays a much smaller role, and a part of it is transferred to Agnes Chumley. The Chumley family may have been recast as the Hopewells in the movie. There is no pronounced conflict between Richmond and the Haddingtons, no competition for the hearts of the parishioners as is presented in the movie. The whole business about technology and the introduction of the light bulb is absent, which would have been anachronistic considering that Edison’s first successful trial didn’t occur until 1879. In both movie and book, the miracle of the Christmas Candle is tied explicitly to the Haddington family business, but different circumstances threaten its continuance: the possible obsolescence of candles by the lightbulb in the former and the lack of a male heir in the latter. The legend of the angel and the Candle in general, the dire needs of the villagers and their hope of receiving the candle, the mixup that leads to the gifting of all of the candles in the lot by the Haddingtons, Richmond’s disbelief in miracles and concern regarding superstition, and the events that conclude with the Christmas miracle in response to Richmond’s own prayer all remain intact.


Ultimately, I condensed my unanswered questions down to a basic two:

  1. What is the theological context of the story?
  2. What was the thesis of the story (if one exists)?

Reading the book did provide the clarity I was looking for, though sometimes more so by what it didn’t say than what it did say.

Theology. The denomination to which the Gladbury parish belongs is never identified explicitly in either the movie or the book. Given that the story takes place in England in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, it is logical to assume that they are probably members of the Church of England. The church building is definitely traditional, Richmond wears a Roman chasuble during church services, and he lights candles in an Advent wreath to mark the weeks in the season. There are, however, several details that suggest that they are actually Methodists:

  • Methodism promotes the holy life through (austere) humility, charity, fasting, and prayer. Richmond’s message to the parishioners is that they can work miracles for one another through acts of kindness. His frustration that this core teaching has been supplanted by reliance on the Candle is evident.
  • In the 18th and 19th Centuries, Methodism was known for its “enthusiasm”. Fanatic preaching and superstitious beliefs gave rise to controversies between the Methodist and Anglican churches (e.g. the ghost of Cock Lane). Anglicans might not have been so convinced of the Candle’s efficacy as the people of Gladbury seem to be. Also, Richmond would probably not have sought refuge from the enthusiasm for miracles following his tragic experience if he had been an Anglican priest.
  • That Richmond served in the Salvation Army is unique to the movie and could not have been the case in the book because the story took place one year before that organization was established (1865). The Salvation Army branched from the Methodist denomination in London. Again, if Richmond were an Anglican priest avoiding superstitious beliefs, the Salvation Army might not be the most natural alternative.
  • This is a minor observation, but Reverend Richmond is never called Father Richmond. While “Reverend” is not an incorrect form for addressing an Anglican priest (though it is grammatically incorrect to use “Reverend” as a noun), using “Father” is much more traditional.
  • Save for one Christmas play, the church service scenes focus completely on Richmond’s sermons. The sanctuary and the altar serve only as a darkened backdrop for the pulpit, and I recall no mention of the Sacraments which are so much a part of the Anglican life. This omission first struck me as a subtle message that the altar isn’t necessary (i.e. an anti-liturgical, anti-sacramental bias), and I finally dismissed it, concluding that references to certain things (even if only visual) would add little to the storyline and possibly introduce unnecessary confusion for Evangelical audiences. The omission would not be so stark, however, if they are Methodists.
  • Similarly, when an Anglican priest is called to the bedside of a dying person, one would expect him to administer Last Rites to help prepare the soul for death; however, Richmond refuses to pray for William Barstow on his deathbed because he didn’t want to provide false hope with a prayer for miraculous healing. It is eventually revealed that Richmond lost his wife and daughter to the same disease, that his own prayers for miraculous healing went unanswered. When he does finally agree to the visit, there is no anointing with oil (much less, penance or viaticum) — Richmond simply reads passages from the Bible.

The theological context was probably left ambiguous on purpose. Doing so allows the filmmakers to set a very ecumenical tone, thereby making the film more appealing to a broad Christian audience. In any case, the book was originally inspired by Anglicanism according to the author. Lucado told John W. Kennedy in an interview that the idea for the story first came to him while attending a Christmas banquet at his daughters’ Episcopalian high school.

Thesis. Almost every synopsis, review, and interview transcription related to the movie imparts that the story is about a preacher who struggles with his faith (including interviews with Rick Santorum who often refers to Reverend Richmond as the ultimate doubting Thomas). While I understand where they are going with that statement, I do not think that it is an adequate description of the main idea at all. There is no indication that Richmond is on the cusp of losing his belief in God’s existence or that his faith in the redemptive power of the Cross is shaken in any way. He simply does not believe that God works miracles for man any longer. If anything, I would describe the story as the struggle of a disenchanted preacher with the superstitious enthusiasm of his new parish. The reason for my interest in establishing the theological context of the story should now be clear.

The word superstition means different things to different people, but in general it has two connotations. The traditional meaning is an excess fear of God (or the gods) often characterized by a separation between the outcome of a religious practice and the underlying reason for that practice. A more modern (and decidedly humanist) definition is the belief in any supernatural causality, which technically encompasses all religion. The practice of reciting the Rosary is a good example of this connotative difference. For the Catholic, the Rosary is a normative devotional for prayerfully meditating on the mysteries revealed in Sacred Scripture. The superstitious Catholic (or other person) might impute special protective powers onto a set of rosary beads, believing for example that using them (or even just possessing them) guarantees physical protection from harm. In contrast, the Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christian professes a belief in the power of prayer but condemns the use of rosary beads because he perceives that they are used either to circumvent God and to seek blessings from some other source, or as an attempt to force God’s grace like some sort of magic spell. At the far end of the spectrum, the atheist believes only what science reveals and considers all prayer to be superstition.

Votive candles are used by traditional Christians to represent personal prayers, usually for the intentions of others. Both Methodists and Anglicans use votives though they differ in the practice of asking for saintly intercession. This being the normal practice, Richmond observes how the villagers of Gladbury cling to legend of the Christmas Candle and the Christmas miracle it secures for the one who lights it and prays, and he condemns the legend and the practice as superstition because he believes that there is a difference between the purpose of the practice and the expected result.

And he would be right, if not for one thing: in the story, the legend is true and the miracles are real! What’s more, it doesn’t even require the person to believe in the legend. This is made clear when Richmond lights his Christmas Candle. I found no indication in the movie or the book that Richmond lit the Christmas Candle for any reason other than the simple need for light on a dark night. Whether he prayed for the safety of the lost mother and child or simply that the candle would light in the blustery snowstorm we do not know, but in the movie both he and Emily Barstow seem to be quite surprised when the Candle turns night into day so that they may find the wrecked coach.

Idolatry. I spent most of the movie trying to decide if the main theme was actually about idolatry and not superstition at all. Yes, the villagers all go to church, but they express extreme disappointment in Richmond when he does not preach about the Candle in his sermons. This certainly sounds like they had turned to a different gospel, even if it was one delivered by an angel (Galatians 1:6-10). And Lucifer (Isaiah 14:12, Vulgate) does mean “bringer of light” does it not? An iconic image of the Candle strikingly adorns the front of the priestly vestments, where one might expect to see a symbol of Christ, such as a cross or perhaps a monstrance. The same icon can be found carved on the front of the pulpit as well.

Despite several clues that this was not the case (e.g. children praying the Lord’s Prayer in front of the Candle) I finally dismissed the idea completely after reading the book. When explaining the legend of the Candle to Richmond, Edward Haddington acknowledges explicitly that the villagers credit God for the miracles. Perhaps the movie could have been more clear on this point.

Sacramentals. The Christmas Candle might properly be considered (in the context of the fictional story of course) a sacramental, which is a prayer accompanied by a specific sign (CCC 1667-1679). Obviously, the lighting of the Candle is that outward sign. Unlike the Sacraments though, a sacramental doesn’t confer God’s grace directly, but prepares one to receive and use it in cooperation with God. In the book, Bea Haddington explains that the Candle has no power of its own, but it is only a vessel. The real power belongs to God alone.

It is appropriate now to consider one key point that is treated differently between film and book. In the movie, it seems that the decision as to who should receive the Candle rests solely with the Haddingtons, that they have to power to choose at their own discretion. We discover, however, that the Candle is indeed reserved either for an intended (or dare I say predestined) recipient or at least for one who is truly in need. When Bea Haddington attempts to light the Candle with the intention of praying for their own need, noble as it may be, the flame is blown out by a mysterious breath. The message is clear: God will decide how best and by whom his gift will be used. This is presented a bit more plainly in the book: the Haddingtons are allowed to participate, but God guides them through prayerful discernment as to who should receive the candle.

Catholicism. I found more than a few commentaries that try to inject a Catholic-Protestant conflict into the story where one does not actually exist. I heartily agree that the same trappings that lead people to assume that the characters in the film are Anglican make them look very Catholic as well, but there are no references whatsoever to the primary differences in dogma, such as the means of salvation or the role of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Christian. Case in point, when I first read the Wikipedia entry for the movie, it stated in the Theology section the following:

The viewpoint of the movie is a mixture of Protestant and Roman Catholic theology, where the main character is struggling between the two.

Two weeks later, the last words of this line were changed to “struggling to find his lost faith”, but the notion that the movie is about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism remains. Whoever added this line may have had an agenda. Christian Fundamentalists have no use for miracles (Matthew 12:39 & 16:4) and are often just as cynical as Richmond. Indeed, that the movie portrays the Candle as real and Richmond as wrong must certainly be interpreted by them as a victory for the Roman Catholic Church.

Mr. Stephen Rives, pastor of Eastside Church of the Cross in Louisburg, Kansas expresses just that in his egregious review. Focusing completely on the doctrines of solus Christus and sola fide, he makes the argument that Richmond has lost his faith in God after the loss of his family, and though he resists the legend intellectually, he eventually relies on the miracle of the Candle as a sign to restore his faith. He is therefore accursed according to Saint Paul (Galatians 1:8). He states:

The pastor in the movie appears (at first) to want the biblical definition of faith. But it depresses him. So in the contest for a right view of Jesus, he finally embraces the Charismatic and Catholic notion of faith. And it is a package deal. He also gets a Catholic love of robes, liturgy and candles. He not only gets the Charismatic meaning of miracles, he becomes an apologist for the American desire to be touched by an angel.

Mr. Rives begins his analysis with the false assumption that Richmond is an Evangelical Fundamentalist. He wants Richmond to embrace the five solae, so much so that he has abandoned the story line altogether and tries to contort the details into an anti-Catholic message. Richmond didn’t fall in love with robes and candles after the Candle restores his faith; these were things he used from the start as either an Anglican or a Methodist minister in the normal course of worship. As for liturgy, as I have already mentioned above, there wasn’t much of that depicted in the film at all. Apologist? I don’t remember him explaining how faith in a magic candle is better than faith in Christ. Consider this quote as well:

And by being touched in holy visitation, the candle undergoes transubstantiation and becomes a self-working sacrament. The person who lights it must only make a prayer, and they automatically receive their request.

Nothing in the film or the book even implies that the Candle’s substance changes, nor is there any indication that the use of the Candle makes one holy as do the Sacraments. Pastor Rives obviously has an axe to grind with Mother Church. Indeed, he goes on to accuse Lucado of wrapping a non-Christian message with Scripture, thereby “calling all pastors everywhere to leave Christ and return to the Catholic Church in Rome.”

[As an aside, since Richmond focuses so heavily on acts of kindness, I did a brief search for commentary regarding (the false dichotomy of) faith versus love (i.e. good works of charity) with respect to the story. The results were minuscule, but I did find two items worth mentioning. The first is Max Lucado’s answers to direct interview questions that broach the topic. Lucado tells us that this is a story of hope more than anything else (i.e. the third enduring thing; 1 Corinthians 13:13), and that “God enters the world in common places and does uncommon things.” He has a plan for everyone and performs his works through common people — and of course, Catholics believe that cooperation in these works is imperative to salvation.

Lou Baldwin ( draws the following conclusion in his review:

Rev. [Richmond] is a former highly effective preacher, who after suffering a personal family tragedy loses his faith in intercessory prayer, concluding that only good works count.

Once I got over the consistent references to Rev. Richardson and the visual of him replacing the lectionary with the complete works of Stephen Covey, I recognized that Baldwin’s assessment is probably more accurate than most, but the latter part of the statement above is problematic. Only good works count for what? Salvation? That’s the usual context but that’s not what Catholics believe.]


Some consider The Christmas Candle a success because it fulfilled its purpose, to provide wholesome, family holiday entertainment. Christian reviewers have emphasized the spiritual benefits of the film, how it reminds audiences about the season of Advent, puts Christ back into Christmas without simply retelling the Nativity story, and brings Christians of all stripes together for the holidays. Those involved in the production of the movie had high expectations based on the audience feedback they’d received.

Having said that, it’s no secret that The Christmas Candle didn’t do very well at the box office, grossing somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 Million. The production quality of the film is good but its distribution was limited. It also received bad reviews across the board except, to everyone’s surprise, from the L.A. Times. Peter Sobczynski of gave the film a dismal 1.5-star review and predicts that it will sink into obscurity rather than become a “perennial” favorite.

And it should come as no surprise that any film produced by religious conservative (former) politician Rick Santorum (EchoLight Studios) is unlikely to gain much favor with the secular liberal media — and that includes the film critics. Take for example Eric Nicholson’s review in the Dallas Observer. From the title alone it is clear that he wants to firmly plant in the minds of his readers the message that Rick Santorum’s film failed. The name of the film really doesn’t matter. I’d have a little more respect for his opinion if I felt like he had actually watched the movie. According to Nicholson, it is “a holiday parable about the residents of a quaint English village protecting traditional values (a miracle-producing candle) against the forces of modernity (electricity).” If you’ve read my analysis above then you’d know that this brief synopsis misses the mark by at least a few miles. At least Nicholson didn’t resort to poking fun at Santorum’s last name.


I rarely agree with the critics on any movie and I personally refuse to accept that the intrinsic quality of a film can be measured completely by its box office earnings. I enjoyed this film greatly. It gave me an opportunity to do some research and provided an interesting backdrop for my own Advent preparation. I don’t know exactly what it will take to turn this into a “classic” in the long run, but I do look forward to its release on home video formats in early 2014.

February 16, 2012


Home > My Research > Christianity > Iconography

The icons of Eastern Christianity are fascinating from both a religious and an artistic point of view. Far from idolatry, icons are used to draw Christians closer to the persons and events of the Bible, as well as to the good lives of the saints. This genre of art is dedicated to depicting Heaven. While the history of and theology behind iconography is interesting and important, this page focuses on the language of icons and the technical aspects of iconography.

There is a lot to know about icons. Much information is obscure, at least to the people of the West, as icons are not neary as popular as in the East and the most direct information is available in other languages, most notably Greek and Russian. This page began as a cursory study of iconography, and I hope to add more detail as time allows, but this information will never be comprehensive.

General Information

The following pages provide good general information about icons and related topics:


Christogram. A Christogram is an abbreviation for the name of Jesus. In Greek, this is depicted as “IC XC”, which stands for “IHCOYC XPICTOC”. These abbreviations use the first and last letters of the words and usually have a line above the combination (like a tilde character, “~”) that denotes that letters in between were omitted. More: Wikipedia


Halo. This is a familiar symbol representing a ring of light around the head of a person, usually a member of the Holy Trinity, a saint, an angel, or any other inhabitant of Heaven. The ring often circumscribes a cross when shown around the head of a member of the Trinity. In icons of Christ, the arms of this cross (usually only three are visible) contain the letters omicron (ο), omega (ω) & nu (Ν or ν), which means “one who exists” or more properly “I Am”. Greek iconographers order the letters clockwise, from left to right, whereas Russian and other Slavic iconographers place the omicron on the top and work downward, with the omega on the left. More: Wikipedia


The colors used in icons are also symbolic. Modern readers in the western world may associate purple with royalty, white with purity, black with death, blue with sorrow, green with ecological awareness, etc. More: Nazareth Studio, Nicusor Dumitru Byzantine Studio, Abp. Gregory

Gold. Gold backgrounds are used to represent the heavenly abode of saints and angels. It symbolizes divine light.
Red. In general, red symbolizes life, health, fire…things dynamic. It can also represent the Last Judgment.
Blue. In geneal, blue symbolizes the sky, things heavenly. Used in frescoes to represent Heaven instead of gold.
White. Life, purity.
Red & Blue. When used in this combination, red clothing denotes divinity and blue clothing denotes humanity. Order matters. Jesus is often shown in a red tunic and blue robe, symbolizing how the divine being took on human flesh. in contrast, Mary is often shown in a blue robe and head-covering draped by a red one, an expression of a human divinely graced.
Red & White. I have seen at least one reference to this combination to express purity (white) through washing in the blood of Christ (red). This meaning may be of Western origin.
Orange. Purification, as with fire.
Purple. Royalty, nobility, wealth, the preisthood, etc. See Daniel 5:29 & Luke 16:19.
Green. Life and fertility. Used in the clothing of the martyrs and prophets and in scenes of life, such as the nativity.
Brown. Humilty (as in dirt) and asceticism.
Green & Brown. These colors also represent the earth or ground. Saints and others are depicted as standing on grass or dirt.
Black. Absence or (more symbolically) absorbtion of light. Thus, absence of life or purity.
Yellow Sadness. Also, leprosy (see Lev. 13:29-37).

Types & Patterns

Icons are part of our Sacred Tradition. Since they depict events from the Bible and the lives of he saints, the details of the pictures are preserved with great diligence, so as not to change what they represent. When painting a new icon of a particular person or event, the iconographer should study earlier copies of the same icon and faithfully reproduce the details. To assist in this, pattern books are availible. Today, it is possible to search for graphic images of an icon by name in any popular search engine and instantly receive a large sample of pictures to compare and contrast. I’ve also seen these refered to as “Types”.

Many line drawings of icons that can be used as patterns can be found online:

Icons of Christ

Pantocrator. Despite what many websites claim, “pantocrator” does not translate directly as “almighty”, but is Greek for “ruler (-crat) of all (pan-)”. It is a frontal view of Jesus, often showing only the head and torso, but may also be a full-length view of the Lord sitting on a throne. He is dressed in a red tunic (divinity) enrobed in blue (humanity). The robe covers left side completely and in his left hand he holds a book (the Gospels). The book is almost always closed (See “The Teacher” below). In some icons (mainly Russian, I think), the left hand is veiled by the robe as well (this reminds me of the way a priest uses a humeral veil to cover his hands when holding a sacred vessel such as a monstrance). On the right, the robe covers only the shoulder (and sometimes the elbow) and his right hand is extended in a customary eastern blessing (sometimes with the raised pinky, ICXC-style). The tunic on the exposed side usually has a golden edge that runs down from the shoulder; however, this looks more like a sash in many icons. There is always a halo, almost never without an inscribed cross, and almost always bearing the Greek “I Am” as described above. The other text on the icon varies. The Greek Christogram IC XC (“Jesus Christ”) is found most often, split with his head between the abbreviated words. Other variants “Jesus/Christ” or “Panto/Crator” split by the image as indicated by the slash mark, and presented in Greek, Russian, English, etc. Some examples show an Alpha on the left and an Omega on the right. More: Wikipedia, Orthodox Wiki,

The Teacher. Christ the Teacher is almost identical to Christ the Pantocrator, except the book is almost universally open. In fact, that may be the distinguishing difference between them and a minority of the examples found online could be mislabelled. More:

The Good Shepherd.

Icon Made Without Hands.

Icons of Mary

Theotokos. More to come…

Icons of Other Saints

Saint Nicholas. More to come…

Icons of Angels

Saint Micheal. More to come…
Gabriel. More to come…
Rafael. More to come…
Guardian Angels. More to come…

Icons of Biblical Events

Nativity. More to come…
Baptism of the Lord. More to come…
Transfiguration. More to come…
Last Supper. More to come…
Crucifixion. More to come…
Descent into Hades. More to come…
Resurrection. More to come…
Ascension. More to come…
Hositality of Abraham. More to come…


Here is a list of stores I’ve found while doing my research. I’ve not purchased from any of them, but thought the list may be handy someday.


How to Paint an Icon — Learn Byzantine Iconography (Squidoo)
Technique: Preparation, Transfiguration, Finishing (Icon Arts)
The Technique of the Iconography… (Moscow Icon-Painting Center)


Icons: Theology in Color by Eugene Trubetskoi, E. N. Trubektlskofi, 1973, ISBN-10: 0913836095

Uncategorized Links (now only available on Wayback Machine)

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