Review: Signs and Mysteries: Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols

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Imagine the dangerous life of a First Century Christian. You’ve embraced your newfound faith in Christ but fear the risk of persecution or death at the hands of the pagans living around you. Then a trusted friend tells you about some of Jesus followers who secretly meet. He whispers into your ear, Look for a fish carved into the entranceway to the burialchambers beside the Via Tiburtina. You smile in gratitude.

Comparatively, modern society is awash in those same Christian symbols that kept early Christians safely connected: they appear on churches, bumper stickers, mugs even mints and stuffed animals. Yet, we are often ignorant of the origins of these symbols having lost the urgency of our spiritual ancestors hostile environment.

Noted author Mike Aquilina conducts an intriguing tour of symbols that guided the first four centuries of the Church s existence. He explains how Christians borrowed pagan and Jewish symbols, giving them new, distinctly Christian meanings. Recover the voice and urgency of our spiritual ancestors symbolic language and discover the impact the symbols still have.

Black and white illustrations by Lea Ravotti of artifacts uncovered throughout the Middle East beautifully complement the text, showing the variety of contexts in which they were found and the range of skills displayed in their execution.

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Our Sunday Visitor (September 15, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592764509
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592764501
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 0.9 inches
  • I would like to thank Laurie at Our Sunday Visitor for this review copy. You will immediately note that OSV is a Catholic publishing house, and indeed, this book is written by a faithful Catholic – yet, there are no attempts at proselytizing, no justification for Catholic doctrines, but a simple and sincere look, with great depth, at early Christian uses of symbols to tell the story of Christ and His Church.

    Easily one of my most anticipated books to read, Signs and Mysteries did not disappoint. I found within this small – almost pocket size – book encouragement, words of life, and a link to the community of Christ from long ago. At once, this book serves as a devotional, a plethora of ministerial ideas, and a short treatise on the history of the early Church. One can find within the pages a remembrance that the early Christian community was often illiterate, unlearned men and women who sought to worship their God in simplicity, adopting symbols for themselves to tell that story long before the canon was formalized. We must remember just how underground the first few centuries of Christianity really were – and this book takes you through a list of symbols and codes which served multiple purposes for the individual Christian and the community as a whole.

    While many Protestants may fail to fully appreciate the adoption of symbols, some of them foreign to the Bible, appreciation should be given without remorse, to those early Christians who used these designs as decorations, or perhaps as the author states, ‘hastily and crudely scratched into plaster’ to ‘to stand forever as a perpetual prayer…’ They were more than that (a proclamation, the author writes) and indeed, while reading the book, I gained a better understanding of the primitive development of iconography.

    The author is able to draw a picture of the early community, one dependent not upon great swelling words of theology taught by some master and doctor of the Church, but one dependent upon such simplicity as can be gained from the knowledge, and the Gospel story, associated with seeing a dolphin intertwined with an anchor.

    The author writes, “These signs sketch the basic grammar that Christians peak to one another across cultures and across millennia.’ indeed, once one allows themselves to be placed alongside the first century Christian, who perhaps can only draw the mystery of the Cross, shaped like an anchor, or to speak of Christ in pictures of lamps, then they can begin to appreciate the level of devotion to the gospel, and indeed to holding to Christ above all trials and tribulations, that the early community had.

    The author makes a point to use not the words of historians, but the words of the Church Fathers and Mothers themselves in letting the symbols speak. He provides a rich patristic history in such a short book, bringing in various voices to the conversation. Further, the design of the book is a beautiful example of a devotional. The writing may be light for some, but it fits into the over all theme of the book.

    I would highly recommend this book for those seeking an introduction into primitive Christian iconography, those who merely want to examine the devotional aspects of those cave sketchings, and one who simply wants a good book to read about the early Church and their love of Christ and His Gospel.

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