The Cardinal Symbols of Faith

The Cardinal Bird Symbol in Christianity

cardinal with crossBirds, doves in particular, have long been a symbol of the holy spirit. Renderings of the holy spirit generally contain one of two elements, white light or red flames. The white dove represents the purity and peace in the light of the spirit and the red cardinal represents the fire and vitality of the living spirit. In addition, the cardinal is symbolic of the living blood of Christ. Both cardinals and blood have long been symbols of vitality, and in the Christian context, that vitality is everlasting. "By His blood we are freed from sin to serve the living God, to glorify Him, and to enjoy Him forever." Traditionally, the cardinal is symbolic of life, hope and restoration. These symbols connect cardinal birds to living faith, and so they come to remind us, that though circumstances might look bleak, dark and despairing, there is always "hope".

The Cardinal Christ:

Cardinal ChristThe cardinal figure of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ. Beyond the actual red-winged cardinal bird representing faith in the living blood of Christ, there are also four very interesting cardinal aspects rooted in the origins of the word 'cardinal'. These cardinal aspects relate to Christ both historically and symbolically. Below you will see that there are four key words that stem from the root translation of the word cardinal. They are: key, hinge, heart and cross. These four cardinal aspects as they relate to Christian tradition may actually open some new thoughts for you about faith, Christ and cardinals. 

The Cardinal Key:

Vatican KeysThe word cardinal comes from Cardo. In antiquity, cardo was used in much the same way as we use the word key today, meaning: vital, significant, main, crucial, important, etc. Christ is not only the ‘key’ figure in Christianity; he is also the cardinal key to our knowledge and understanding of the mysteries of God. When we think of Christ and keys, St. Peter is generally the first one that comes to mind. In the book of Matthew, after instructing the apostle Peter to build his church upon a rock, Christ gives to him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Though the keys have since become a symbol of the Vatican’s power, the keys began as mystical source of knowledge that Christ entrusted the church to share with mankind. In the early days of Christianity, the apostle Paul proclaimed that Christ himself was the ‘key’ to understanding the meaning of God’s word. He believed in the biblical scriptures not as static words on a page, but as words that came alive through the presence of Christ. For Paul, words were but witnesses of the life-giving spirit, of the one who writes truths in men’s hearts.

The Cardinal Hinge:

HingeChrist is the embodiment of the ‘hinge’ element in the Christian faith. Cardo is also the root of the word cardinis, used for the hinge of a door, or a pivot, that on which something turns. In Latin, cardo literally means hinge or axis, something on which all else depends, as does the general meaning of the word crucial. That Christ is crucial to the Christian way of life calls for little explanation. His existence in itself is ‘something on which all else depends’. Unlike the mythical Atlas who held the weight of the world on his shoulders, Christ is the axis of the world. He is the central, or cardinal line about which the body rotates. What is the ‘hinge’ element in Christ? A door without hinges cannot be freely opened, just as for Christians, a life without Christ cannot be fully realized.

The Cardinal Heart:

Sacred HeartCardinal is also rooted in the word for heart. In Latin cardium, originating from the root word cardo, means heart. What does a hinge have to do with a heart? A hinge (cardo) is literally the place on which a door swings and is always moved. It is so called after the term Greek kardia (heart), because the heart (cor) governs and moves the whole person, just as this pivotal hinge governs and moves a door. The cross has four points, and the human heart has four chambers or closed spaces, two atria and two ventricles. Just as the heart of the body is the central life-preserving organ of the body, so Christ is the central life-preserving edifice for humanity.  As represented by the sacred heart of Jesus, the heart is the center where divine love resides within each and every one of us.

The Cardinal Cross:

Cardinal CrossWhile we are all familiar with the symbol of the cross as it relates to the death and resurrection of Christ, the concept of the cross from the root of the word cardinal may open some new thoughts on the subject. The oldest base root of the word cardinal is actually connected to the word cross. The word cross comes from the Old Norse word, kross and the Latin word, crux. For the ancient Romans, the Latin word crux, had come to mean “a guidepost that gives directions at a place where one road has been split into two”. It’s not hard to recognize the figure of Christ as the ‘guidepost’ who offers directions to travelers along the road of life. Where one road has been spilt into two, can easily be seen as the crossroad we all come to at some pivotal point in our lives. It is the place where we must make an important, cardinal choice and need guidance to do so.

On a deeper level, one road that has been split into two can also refer to our perceived separation from God. If we are walking down a road and it splits into two, we have a choice to turn right or left. If it is truly a cardinal crossroad, we may experience finding our guidepost at the intersection. We may discover that there is only one road to that leads to faith and unity. Whatever we find there, we can be certain that finding ourselves at a crossroad is a cardinal opportunity to ' find our way', at the ‘cross’.

The root word for cross is contained in many words we commonly use: across, crucial, crucify, cruise (to cross the sea, or go backwards and forwards), cruiser, crusade, crux, and excruciate. In the cardinal sense, the cross represents fourfold systems: the four directions: north, south, east, and west; the four seasons; the four elements; the four winds; the four gospels; the four chambers of the heart; etc.

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