If you look on the right sidebar, you will see one of the most prominent symbols of the early undivided Church: the Labarum. It is found both in the manuscripts and art of early Christians and became intertwined with the Church of the Roman Empire after the conversion of Constantine. Since the origin of this symbol may not be familiar to many Christians (even though most are familiar with the symbol itself), a brief explanation will be given.
Originally, the word “labarum” referred to the imperial standard carried before the Roman legions. Constantine, then fighting rivals for the throne, allegedly received a vision telling him to conquer under the cross of Christ. He adopted for his army a sign that had sometimes been used by early Christians: the Greek letter chi (which looks like “X”) upon the Greek letter rho (which looks like “P”). This symbol was in common use to denote key passages in manuscripts and as a shorthand for the Greek word chrestos meaning good. The similarlty of “chrestos” and “Christos” plus the resemblance of the letter chi to a cross made the symbol a natural opportunity for Christians to use a common symbol to express their faith in Christ.
The actual events surrounding Constantine’s supposed vision have long been a subject of debate; that Constantine made use of this symbol is not doubted. The sign was affixed to the imperial battle standard, Constantine vanquished his foes for the imperial throne, Christianity evolved from a persecuted minority to a tolerated and later the established religion of Rome (under the emperor Theodosius), and the adopted symbol became the emblem of the Christian Empire. Over time, the word “labarum” was associated less with the imperial standard than the symbol itself, and it is to this usage that this blog takes its name.
The use of the labarum no more endorses every action of Constantine than using the Book of Common Prayer does likewise for Henry VIII. The labarum as a symbol looks to Christ and is a reminder that we have an historic faith – one occurring in time but with an eye always looking to eternity. It hearkens back to the time when the Faith was guarded and novelties disdained. It reminds us of the early persecuted Christians who used this symbol (and others) as a sign of hope. It recalls the period when the Church first emerged from the oppression and drew the boundaries against heresy. Most importantly, its use as a military standard is a sign to us that we are engaged in warfare – albeit a spiritual one against principalities and powers and we must remain vigilant until the end of the age.