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Symbols for the Four Gospels
Question from Bob L. on 10/15/2002:

I have read in many places that the Church traditionally assigns symbols taken from the Book of Revelation to the four Gospels; i.e. the man is Matthew's Gospel, the lion is Mark's Gospel, the ox or calf is Luke's Gospel, and the eagle is John's Gospel.

I have never been able to find out what the symbols mean; why is each attributed to its particular Gospel?

Answer by Fr. John Echert on 10/16/2002:

The book of Revelation records this vision of St. John:

4:6 In the center and around the throne, there were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back. The first creature resembled a lion, the second was like a calf, the third had a face like that of a human being, and the fourth looked like an eagle in flight. The four living creatures, each of them with six wings, were covered with eyes inside and out.

These four living creatures are before the throne of God and they appear to be cherubim angels, as first described in a similar vision of Ezekiel, an OT prophet. Their principal role as described in Revelation is to lead the heavenly host and all creation in the worship of God. In addition, as early as the second century AD we have evidence that the Church viewed these four symbolically as representative of the four Evangelists as well, as noted by St. Irenaeus. Specifically, the creature resembling a lion is associated with the Gospel of St. Mark which begins with the Baptist roaring like a lion in the wilderness, the creature like a calf is associated with St. Luke who begins the Gospel in the Temple where sacrifices took place, the third which resembled a human being is associated with St. Matthew who begins with the human genealogy of our Lord, and the fourth like an eagle is associated with the Prologue and Gospel of St. John which soars in spiritual insight. So we can say that these four living beings have a literal meaning--the cherubim angels--and a symbolic meaning--the Evangelists. ©

Thanks, Bob

Father Echert

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