Chi-Rho…puts Christ back into the season!


ChiRho from the Irish Book of Kells

The perennial debate again rages around the secularization of Christmas by retailers and merchants that use the Christian holiday as a sales resource rather than the theological recollection of Jesus Christ’s birth. Watching the nightly news, there are multiple examples of controversies that surround the display of the Christmas Crèche, multiple attempts to kidnap members of the statuesque Holy Family and the most striking the use of an X as the substitution for the name of Christ rendering a double speak Orwellian phrase…Merry Xmas. Perhaps Catholics need to have a refresher course in the signs and symbols that constitute part of our Catholic heritage of faith.
While the use of an X might at first indicate that Christ has been taken out of Christmas, there are linguistic and historical implications for this abbreviation. The often misnamed X is better known in the Greek language as a Chi. Since the earliest days of the Church, it has been used in conjunction with another Greek letter, Rho to indicate the name of Christ, The Chi-Rho is the P and X thing we frequently see adorning everything from our sacred altars to vestments and even Episcopal coats of arms. The reality simply put is this, the use if an X really doesn’t take Christ out of our seasonal acclamation of Merry Christmas; it merely inserts and utilizes an historical and ancient Christian symbol as part of the abbreviation.
The Emperor Constantine according to Catholic lore incorporated the Chi-Rho into his battle shields and standards, after a vision that advised him, “In this sign, you will conquer!”(In hoc signo vinces!) Armed with the Christian symbol in A.D. 310, Constantine won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, totally conquered his adversaries, conquered Rome and became the leader of the Roman Empire. Subsequent to there events, Constantine also recognized Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, which halted the persecutions of the early Church and allowed Christianity to develop as the cohesive uniting factor for both Eastern and Western realms of the Empire.
So next time you see the Chi as a modified adaptation of Christmas, educated and informed Catholics realize that indeed no one has taken the Christ our of our annual celebration, just modified the phrase with a unique blend of Greek and Olde English. In all of my experiences teaching religion over the years to Catholic students, I have yet had one student know the linguistic roots of the popular Xmas abbreviation. Perhaps the real foundational cause associated with our surmised secularization of the Christmas season is our own lack of appreciation for Catholic historical events and the development of linguistic peculiarities that are inherent to every language on our planet. The nuances of Catholic history and traditions surround us on a regular basis in everything from civil law, to art and architecture, educational facilities and libraries even modern pop music tonally established by the monastic chants of the Gregorian era.
Secularization of sacred celebrations is indeed something we should always avoid. However and most importantly we as faithful believers in the Christian message need to become acutely aware of our heritage and theological foundations that surround us on a regular basis and have changed the direction of world history. In our Catholic catechetical studies it is critically important that we teach about all aspects of the Church’s history and development and how it is correctly applied to our theological message of salvation history through Jesus Christ. If we as Catholics continue to neglect an appreciation for our treasured signs and symbols as keystones to our historical and theological “story” then we indeed will allow the antiseptic desanctification of secularism to pervade or Catholic message and traditions.
Whenever I use the X mas abbreviation, I make it a point to write the XP (Chi-Rho) as a preface to the holiday invocation. This way, I boldly and loudly indicate that Christ indeed is in Christmas and the rest of our lives as the ultimate symbol of hope and salvation. Perhaps all of us as Catholics need to boldly use the sign and symbol of the XP (Chi-Rho) as our modern moniker, like Constantine against commercialization and secularism of our most sacred Catholic celebrations.
Merry XP mas, Christ is indeed here among all of us, not just misplaced by a linguistic abbreviation of grammatical convenience.

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