Chi Rho

Here’s a symbol you often see in churches:

Santa Maria in Trastevere

and in cemeteries:

Chi Rho alpha omega

The symbol is a sort of monogram or shorthand meaning “Christ,” and is formed from the first two letters of that word in Greek (“ΧΡΙΣΤΟ&#x03A3″). Those first two letters are, respectively, Chi (Χ) and Rho (Ρ).

The letter Chi is pronounced “key” or “khee.” It is a “ch” sound, as in chorus or charisma or the Scottish loch. Rho normally represents an “r” sound, except at the beginning of a word. There, Greek expects a breathy sort of sound, which is indicated with an “h” and is why English has hard-to-spell words like “rhythm” and “rhapsody” and “rhinoceros.”

This symbol is (very imaginatively) called the “Chi Rho,” from the two Greek letters from which it is formed. As the 2nd picture shows, the “Chi Rho” symbol often appears with two other Greek letters, the “Alpha” (Α) and the “Omega” (Ω) used to describe Jesus in Revelation 1:8. Although it’s made of two disctinct letters, the “Chi Rho” is a symbol in its own right, and has its own Unicode value and everything! (U+2627, &#x2627)

Anyway, I mention it because we’re headed into what is now often called the “Holiday Season.” On the increasingly rare occasions when the name of the holiday appears, it is written as “X-mas” rather than “Christmas.”

I’ve known people who got all bent out of shape over the “X” in “X-mas” as if it were somehow demeaning to Christ to use an abbreviation. But as these ancient monograms show, the “Chi” (along with the “Rho”) is actually an perfectly legitimate symbol for Christ. There’s nothing demeaning about it. But call it “Khee-mas” instead of “eks-mas” if you want to be an egghead about it!

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