I had a conversation with a couple of the ladies in my church today about a symbol that is imprinted into the fabric lining the bottom of our brass offering plates. I had overheard one of them telling the other that “IHS” stood for “In His Service”. Sounds good enough. Makes sense. It would be a good meaning to take away from it. But that isn’t what it actually means.
I have found that many times symbols have a way of taking on a life of their own and often their significance shifts (sometimes rather dramatically) over time. This may largely be to a lack of pastors and teachers discussing the meanings and significance of symbols within the Church (or perhaps many pastors and teachers don’t know such matters themselves). But we really should take care to do so.
I have encountered times in my own life where folks have decided that such symbols are somehow pagan…often this comes from a lack of historical appreciation. Or because of the lack of historical understanding it was easy for some other folks to force their seemingly spiritual interpretation onto the other folks in order to attack such symbols. Sadly lacking historical appreciation of the Church makes us easy targets for false teaching.
So what does “IHS” mean? It belongs to a VERY EARLY tradition found in the Greek manuscripts of the early church wherein the sacred name (nomina sacra) of “Jesus” (Gr. ‘ΙΗΣΟΥΣ; transliterated as ‘IESOUS) was abbreviated by use of the first two letters of his name (IH – sounded like “yeah”) and the final letter (Σ which is a ‘sigma’ for ‘s’). It is actually a Christogram where the name of Jesus holds great significance and has been used as a tool of veneration among many. As a Christogram it has been also variantly explained to refer to an abbreviation of the Latin Iesus Hominum Salvator (“Jesus, Savior of Humankind” which provides both the sacred name “Jesus” and its implicit meaning found in Matthew’s gospel 1:21: “he will save his people from their sins”).
While the simple misunderstanding mentioned in my church today was nothing significant (it was my own understanding for many years) it simply reminded me of the need to ground the local church in the history of the Church as one guard against false teaching and a greater appreciation for the richness of our heritage as members of the Church universal. Or maybe I’m just sentimentally reflecting on my responsibilities as a pastor and one who desires to find myself an understanding and appreciative member of the wider Church. And I’m convinced such symbols aid our congregations to find creative entrée into discussing and appreciating the rich history of the wider Church. 🙂