Have you ever wondered about the ox with wings that’s on our sign and letterhead?
It’s long been a symbol of St. Luke the Evangelist, the gospel writer. So churches that are named after Luke, like ours, also use it as a symbol. But where did the idea of a flying ox come from in the first place? If you’ve ever wondered about it, you’re not alone. I, myself, just found out this week.
A winged bull first appears in Ezekiel, chapter 1, where the prophet describes four living creatures that exist below the throne of God. They are very strange-looking indeed:
They were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. . . . As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces.
In chapter 10, these fearsome four-faced creatures are identified as cherubim—a far cry from the chubby little angel-children we generally associate with “cherub”! They appear from Genesis, where they guard Eden after the fall, all the way to Revelation:
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.
Revelation seems to be playing a variation on the cherubim theme. Here the creatures only have one face (and probably correspond to constellations in the night sky rather than a class of angels) and are covered with eyes (denoting them as all-seeing), but their resemblance to Ezekiel’s description is unmistakable.
Why these four animals? They represent the hierarchy of creatures: The human as ruler of creation in the image of God, the lion as king of beasts, the ox as king of domesticated animals, and the eagle as king of the birds. Within the first few centuries of Christianity, those animals, with wings like the cherubim, were connected to the gospels—also four in number. Once connected, they gathered additional symbolic meaning:
- Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus and, in so doing, points us toward the incarnation of God in human flesh. Thus, Matthew is represented by a person. The winged person reminds us to use our reason as we strive for salvation.
- Mark’s symbol is a lion, a sign of courage and authority. Because tradition held that lions sleep with their eyes open, it represents the resurrection. The lion reminds us to be courageous in our faith.
- Luke is represented by a figure of sacrifice, the ox or bull. It points us to Mary’s obedience, to Jesus’ sacrifice, and to his high priesthood. It reminds us to go into the world with self-sacrificial love.
- The higher Christology of John’s gospel is reflected in the eagle, a figure of the sky. It represents Jesus’ ascension and his divine nature. Following the early Christian belief that eagles could look directly into the sun, this reminds us to look toward eternity without flinching.
But wait, there’s more! St. Luke’s isn’t just home to the winged ox. All four of these symbols are depicted in the cross that hangs above the altar. The person is at the top, lion to the right, eagle to the left, and the ox at the base. At the center is a dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The dove is gilded, representing the glory of God the Father, and it sits at the center of the cross, the symbol of Jesus the Christ. There above the altar are the four evangelists, depicted as cherubim supporting the divine throne, pointing us to God, revealed in Christ, who sustains us in all things and sends us into the world in self-sacrificial love.
Now, when you see the winged ox, you’ll know: It’s a symbol of Luke and a reminder of our calling to offer our lives and love for the sake of the world.
Yours in Christ,