“Lions and Tigers and Bears!”
In all seriousness, as we celebrate the feast day of St. mark the Evangelist, I thought I’d spend a moment talking about the strange tradition that we have in the church of identifying the four gospel writers with four of the fantastical creatures that St. John the Seer describes as being God’s attendants in the Revelation to St. John. In case you’re not exactly familiar with what I’m talking about, here is the Bible quote:
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.And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,
‘Holy, holy, holy,
the Lord God the Almighty,
who was and is and is to come.’
Revelation 4:6-8 (NRSV; HERE)
And here is an picture of a glass window which employs the tradition:
So, since the times of the earliest Church thinkers (3rd-5th century), people have associated the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with the four living creatures: man, lion, ox and eagle, respectively.
Pretty much. That is until you see how later artists and thinkers began to use these symbols to link their thoughts to the Gospel. Yes, there have been countless attempts to explain how the text and context and text of each gospel relates to its given image, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking simply about the ways in which a single, seemingly out-of-place lion, or ox or eagle can invoke an entire tradition.
In the church where I currently serve, several of the kneelers on which we kneel at the time of communion are embroidered with the figure of one of the four creatures. When one kneels to receive communion, the symbol couldn’t be more clear – what I am doing here is grounded in the Gospel. What Mark said there, in that text, is very literally supporting what i have doing here, in this place. It’s kind of cool.
So, the next time you’re in a church or other space that has traditionally been linked to Christianity., keep your eyes open for one of our four friends. Then wonder, aloud if you are with friends, what this symbolism might have to do with linking the traditions of the Gospel writers with the contemporary context. You’ll be glad that you did.