Sun, September 29, 2002

The Phoenix as Christian Symbol

I’ve enjoyed that the phoenix was chosen as the name for the new browser project. The phoenix myth and the whole “rising from the ashes” idea is fairly commonly used as a metaphor for bringing new life or rejuvenation. Did you know that the phoenix has been used as a Christian symbol of the resurrection since the first century?

In a typical version of the myth, the phoenix is said to have been an eagle-like bird with beautiful red and gold plummage that lived in Arabia. Only one phoenix existed at a time. Every 500 years, as it felt its life drawing to an end, the phoenix would build a nest of frankincense, myrrh, and other sweet smelling woods. When its time was completed, it would set its nest on fire (or the sun’s rays would ignite it) and the bird would be consumed in the flames. Three days later, the phoenix would rise again from the ashes, restored to youth to live out another 500 years.

In another version of the legend, a worm crawls from the ashes and matures into a phoenix. The phoenix’s first task is to embalm the bones of its parent in a ball of myrrh and then carry this to the temple in Heliopolis (the City of the Sun) in Egypt to be buried.

In ancient Egypt, the phoenix, or bennu, was associated with the daily cycle of the Sun and the annual flooding of the Nile. The Romans used the phoenix symbol on their coins to represent both rebirth and the imperishable existence of the empire.

Clement of Rome in the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians makes the earliest known connection of the tale of the phoenix to the fact of the resurrection. Clement writes:

Do we then think it great and remarkable for the Maker of all things to raise up again those that have piously served him in the assurance of a good faith, when even by a bird he shows us the mightiness of his promises? For he says in a certain place, “Thou shalt raise me up, and I shall confess unto Thee;” and again, “I laid me down, and slept; I awaked, because Thou art with me;” and again, Job says, “Thou shalt raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things.”

After Clement of Rome’s epistle, the phoenix story was widely applied in the church as a symbol of apotheosis. Think about the story as you hear the baptismal hymn:

Awake, awake O sleeper,
Arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you. (Ephesians 5:14)