Coming Close: The Winged Ox and the Sword

Peet DickinsonIf you go up into the sanctuary behind the Communion table in the Cathedral, you will find, among other things, two embroidered chairs, one with a winged ox and the other with a sword and a book.  You’ll find the winged ox chair under the stained glass window of St. Luke and the sword chair is under the window of St. Paul.  A winged ox and a sword: these are the traditional symbols of our two patron saints.

Now, for some, these may seem like rather archaic iconography that doesn’t really help us much, but from my experience, we humans are rather visual beings.  Images mean something and they do something to us, so why these images for St. Luke and St. Paul?

First, the winged ox.  Historically, the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have been linked with the four winged living creatures spoken of in Revelation 4:6-8.  The second living creature around the throne in this passage is one like an ox.  That is the creature that has been linked to St. Luke.  Why?  An ox is a beast known for its strength, but also its steady labor.  St. Luke was a man who labored diligently for the sake of the Gospel as he journeyed with St. Paul and chronicled the saving work of God for and through his church.  He, like St. Paul, showed his strength by his willingness to suffer for the sake of telling the Good News, and it is that Good News Luke would tell that is also represented in his symbol, the ox.  The ox is also a symbol of sacrifice.  The ox was the sacrifice offered in the temple for the sake of the people.  Luke would sacrifice his comfort and stability in life because he knew that a sacrifice had been made for him and for the whole world, once for all, by Christ upon the cross.  Christ’s blood was poured out for Luke and now he would give his life as a living sacrifice in gratitude to his savior.  Luke, an ox laboring and laying down his life for Jesus Christ.

What of the sword?  It is not a symbol of sacrifice, but instead a symbol of witness.  Tradition has it that St. Paul died a martyr’s death under the sword of a Roman executioner.  It is this device of death that has become the symbol of St. Paul for to him it was not a device of death at all, but rather of true life.  Remember his words in his letter to the Philippians?

…it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 1:20-21

Both the ox and the sword are appropriate symbols of our patrons, but it would not be so were it not for that event which is depicted in another image we have in our sanctuary.  It is that image at the very front and center of our church.  It is the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus that is the labor and sacrifice that empowered Luke to labor and sacrifice like an ox, and it is the execution that removed the sting of death, even death by an executioner’s sword.

So, when we look to the images of the winged ox and the sword, they mustn’t be just interesting decorations on our chairs.  They are symbols of saints who trusted in the cross of Christ and lived differently as a result.  By the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we can follow our patrons, Luke and Paul.  We can be a people who labor and sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel.  We can be a people with deep assurance that to live is Christ and to die is gain, giving witness to the victory over death of our Savior and Lord.

Coming Close is a regular feature written by our Dean & Rector, The Very Rev. R. Peet Dickinson, IV