Skin Deep

This past Spring, I found myself “unusually fascinated” by an ancient piece of history that had somehow eluded me for most of my life.

Like most people, I imagine, I have probably seen various manifestations of the Chi Rho symbol thousands of times in my life but had never once paused to consider its origin or what it might mean to me personally. Prior to 2013, I very much doubt that I would have been able even to articulate the phrase “Chi Rho” in response to seeing this symbol…and I was in a Greek fraternity all through college!

But then, we all see what we wish to see, and our prevailing interests have a way of casting a shadow over anything that might unsettle our thinking. For example, there’s a large Chi Rho adorning the front of another church building here in downtown Columbia, Mo. I don’t mind telling you that from 1993 to 1997 I never really thought about it all that much as I walked past, on my way to the corner liquor store. A symbolic reminder of a magnificent moment in time…entirely lost on my self-focused soul committed to self-destruction.

The item that captivated me earlier this year was the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in the year 312. Those who care to find out more can check out these results of a quick Google search; this particular battle caught my attention not so much for the fact that the outnumbered military forces of Constantine prevailed over those of Maxentius, but more due to the pre-battle story handed down to us by the noted historian Eusebius.

The vision of Constantine prior to the
Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

According to Eusebius, Constantine experienced a vision of Jesus the night before the battle and was inspired to paint Chi Rho – the first two letters in Greek for “Christ” – on his helmet and shield, instructing his personal body guard and soldiers to do likewise. After his amazing, unlikely victory over Maxentius, Constantine attributed his military triumph to “the God of the Christians” and later issued the Edict of Milan, thus marking the official end of Christian persecution in the newly-unified Roman Empire.

As I did my assigned research last semester, I couldn’t help but notice that Internet searches were consistently bringing up images of modern-day tattoos of these Greek letters, with some versions adding smaller Alpha and Omega characters in reference to Revelation 22:13. For the briefest of moments, I actually thought it might be cool to have a Chi Rho symbol tattooed over my heart, a lifelong reminder of the One to whom I belong.

But then I snapped out of it.

The history of the church is somewhat ambivalent to the authenticity of the conversion of Constantine. True, he demonstrated tolerance to the Christian church, but it was a tolerance that very closely hewed to the requirements of his own enormous political and military ambitions. To put it bluntly, Constantine’s acceptance of Christ never really got in the way of his own massive agenda. It’s a toss-up whether or not he was “the real deal,” and many church historians seem to think, “Probably not.” The allegiance of Constantine probably went no deeper than the layer of paint on the shields of his soldiers.

In our time, of course, we often risk making the very same mistake as Constantine. We hurry to adopt the external trappings of an authentic Christian faith – tattoos, jewelry, bumper stickers, etc. – but our excitement slows down considerably whenever we encounter the Person of Christ Himself and the truth of what following Him might mean for our lives. While there is certainly nothing wrong with slapping an Ichthys on the back of your Honda, the Jesus of Scripture consistently berates those who have taken on the outer manifestations of faith but have not bothered to cooperate with God’s Spirit in a cleansing of the soul (Matthew 23:25-28).

It’s entirely possible that my interest in Constantine and what his actions say to modern Christians are ample evidence that I am a hopeless nerd, but on top of this obvious fact, it also reminds me once again of God’s great mercy; He has used this turning point in the history of His church to show me that we believers are far too eager to honor God with our lips (Matthew 15:1-9) but balk when asked to do the hard work of truly believing the hard words of Jesus, merciful warnings that ask us to repent (Matthew 4:17).

Many people blanch at the idea of having an electric needle insert ink under the top layers of their skin. Far more, I would argue, go straight to indignant when asked to modify their behaviors and lifestyle to better accord with the truths of Scripture…truths they would say they believe! Just like the guy who drives like a maniac and endangers others while sporting an Ichthys on his car, I think a brief study of Constantine has served to show me my own blindness, alongside an ongoing desire to “co-opt Christ” for personal gain. Sure, if asked, I would gladly suffer through hours of blood and needle work to bear His mark on my physical body, but then I turn right around and demur when asked to love my neighbor as myself, give generously, forgive others and control my tongue.

Painting insignia on our shields and helmets. Tattooing our skin. Going off to bloody battle for the emperor. All of it adds up to nothing if we aren’t also ready to obediently go to battle to change our own hearts.

Luke 6:46-49 (ESV)
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”

One Comment

  1. 25rene said:

    Thanks for this. I am considering this tattoo, but now I will prayerfully consider it to make sure I am doing it for the right reasons. God bless.

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