A Message from Father Nick 28

Living with signs and symbols (I)

We are familiar with the early Christian symbol of the fish, which acted as a kind of secret sign for believers. It could be understood by reading the Greek word for fish as an acronym, or acrostic. “ICHTHYS” would then stand for IESOUS CHRISTOS; THEOU YUIOS; SOTER (in translation: “Jesus Christ; Son of God; Saviour”).

Those early followers of Christ made greater use of code and secrecy than we do (sometimes of course their safety depended upon it). While we might complain if we are not allowed to make a public display of our images of faith, they would expect not to be able to display theirs. But we share this belief with them: a Christian person should be identified most of all by the way he or she lives their life.

There is another fascinating example of Christian code: a word-square which has been discovered in Rome and Pompeii (making it very early indeed), and in places as far apart as Syria and Cirencester.

As Beram Saklatvala points out in his book on early Christian Britain,

It can be read line by line horizontally from the top; or vertically from the top left-hand corner; or horizontally from the bottom right-hand corner taking each line from right to left; or vertically from the same point, taking each line from bottom to top. In all cases, the same sentence is read:


The meaning of these words is not clear. However, the generally accepted translation is:

The sower Arepo holds the wheels carefully” [or, “The sower guides the wheels for the plough carefully”].

No precise meaning can be given to the sentence, but in 1926 an explanation was suggested which is now generally accepted.

All the letters of the square can be used to write the wordsPATER NOSTERtwice, provided that this is done in the form of a cross, with the single letter N at the intersection. This leaves unused two A’s and two O’s. These are the Latin equivalents of the Greek letters Alpha and Omega that were used as a symbol of Christ, echoing the words in the Revelation of St John: ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending…’ Thus the solution of the word square is: