human, lion, ox and eagle are symbols of the four evangelists: Matthew,
Mark, Luke and John. These symbols adorn many works of art, buildings and
objects used in worship. Each may identify one evangelist, or the four
may represent the Gospel as a whole. In addition, the four symbols taken
together represent the mystery of Christ’s life. They recall in turn the
birth, sacrifice, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
symbols derive from the opening of the Book of Ezekiel. There the prophet
envisions four living creatures in the middle of a glowing fire from a
stormy north wind. The faces of the creatures resemble a human being, a
lion, an ox and an eagle (1:10). Their mystery and their movement made
such an impact on the prophet that Christian generations have seen in their
appearance a foreshadowing of the Gospels of Jesus Christ. The figures
appear again in Revelation 4:7.
human being (sometimes rendered as an angel) signifies Matthew, who opens
his story with the human origins of Jesus’ genealogy. The lion, according
to legend, sleeps with eyes open, making it a symbol of resurrection. It
depicts Mark, whose Gospel begins with the leonine John the Baptist in
the desert. Luke’s account of the infancy of Jesus places the child in
the Temple with Zechariah, a priest who offered sacrifice of animals including
oxen. The horns of the beast may represent the old and new covenant, each
with its own sacrifice. John, the evangelist whose work intently gazes
on the eternal Word who shattered the darkness with his light, recalls
the eagle that flies face into the sun. In this way, tradition has assigned
each evangelist a proper symbol.
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Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish in Cameron, MO, holds a doctorate
in sacramental theology from Sant' Anselmo University in Rome.