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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

29 August 2005


IHSQ: Please explain the origin and meaning of the letters “IHS” found on the front of the altar in our church.

A: Many churches have these initials (or “ihc”) in stained glass, on altars, or on crosses. There’s a particular model of a brass cross that I’ve seen countless times in churches and in church catalogs that has the “IHS” at the intersection of the pole with the cross bar.

With the exception of an actual corpus (an image of the body of Christ), these letters are probably among the most appropriate items to display on a cross. Why? They are actually the Greek letters iota (Ι or ι), eta (Η or η), and sigma (Σ or ς). They have the “i,” the long “e” or “ay,” and the “s” sounds in English and are the first three letters of the name “Jesus” in Greek.

Greek is an inflected language and the ending changes depending upon whether a noun is a subject, an object or another part of speech. These first three letters are constant in all instances.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


Blogger The Terrible Swede said...

Kung Fu Master Snyder, could IES also mean Jesus Is Lord?

29 August, 2005 21:11  
Blogger Xrysostom said...

I hadn't heard this, so I did a bit of checking. Because Greek was less well known, some who understood only Latin started trying to figure out what the initials meant based upon words in that language. They came up with Jesus Hominum (or Hierosolymae) Salvator. This would translate as either "Jesus, Savior of Men (Hominis)" or "Jesus, Savior of Jerusalem (Hierosolyma)." The original Greek monogram and its understanding are thus to be preferred.

29 August, 2005 21:57  
Blogger Xrysostom said...

I almost forgot. "Lord" would be excluded, since in Greek, the word is Kyrios.

29 August, 2005 21:59  
Anonymous Michael K. Heidle said...


Thanks (as always) for your concise and helpful columns.
Re: the IHS, in addition to what you've stated, it was fairly common to abbreviate certain words in Greek much like our abbreviations and contractions in English. In Greek, when the final letters are omitted, the last letter of the abbreviation often had a line (like a raised hyphen) over it to denote the abbreviation. In the case of IHS, the line is sometimes depicted over the eta (H) to form a small cross in an ornate IHS.
This is common Greek practice... I like to point that out simply because people who aren't familiar with the practice sometimes think it's disrespectful to abbreviate the Name of our Lord.

In Christ,
Michael K. Heidle
Grace Lutheran Church
Key West, Florida

31 August, 2005 09:08  

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