I once had a very observant teen lean over (in the middle of Mass) and ask me, “Hey Mark, what does the “IHS” stand for on the gold box up there?”
The gold box he was referring to was the tabernacle, where the Blessed Sacrament (Jesus, fully present in the Eucharist) is reserved. While the middle of Mass wasn’t the best time to stop and give a lesson on Greek or Church history, I have to say I was proud of him for asking.
Most of us see things like I.H.S. all over our churches and sacred vessels, but don’t really stop to ask what it means.
I.H.S. stands for Incarnation High School … it’s the high school prep academy where Jesus went, just outside of Nazareth. Their mascot is the fightin’ footwashers …
Wow, that was stupid. Answers like that will probably get me in trouble with Catholics who lack a sense of humor.
Actually, I.H.S. (or I.H.C., in some translations) stands for the first three letters of the name (and title) of Jesus Christ in Greek (IHCOUC – the Greek for sigma is a lot like our “C”).
There have been many interpretations of the I.H.S., including:
- The Latin In Hoc Signo (Vinces), which means “In this sign (you will conquer), from the vision that Constantine received before his victory at the Mulvian Bridge in 312 (some say 313). Constantine received a vision of a cross and heard the phrase and had it emblazoned on the shields of his soldiers.
- The Greek Iesus Hemeteros Soter which means “Jesus our Savior” which was a popular Christian inscription in the early church.
- The Latin Iesus Hominum Salvator which means “Jesus Savior of Humankind,” was made popular by St. Bernadine.
- Some have even used the English phrase “I have suffered” to ascribe meaning to it, but that is a much later “pneumonic device” to remember Christ’s passion and love for us.
When you see the inscription, it is a reminder of God’s loving power and enduring mercy for us. It is more than God’s “title”; it is a reminder of God’s active presence with us, among us and before us.
As Scripture attests:
“… for it is written: ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall give praise to God’.” Romans 14:11
“… at the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:10- 11
When it comes to art and architecture in the Church, the best thing to remember is that everything has meaning and when you take the time to ask the question and seek the answers, your entire Mass experience and faith experience will deepen as your spirituality grows throughout your senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, etc.
God uses everyone of your senses to touch your soul, all of His created things are supposed to point us back to the Creator at Mass – for instance, incense (smell), bells (sound), stained glass and icons (sight) and most specifically the Eucharist (taste).
Just remember, the I.H.S. is a reminder that you are HIS.