SO, WHAT IS THAT WORD - 'PAIHSMT - WRITTEN ON THE ALTAR?
At least three different times this Summer visiting tour groups would wander through the Church, admire the stained glass windows, stare at the great wooden altar, and then ask the above question. "What's PAIHSMT?" they would ask, thinking they had stumbled into arcane Christian or Alaskan lore. 'Episcopal' is an odd enough word, no telling what 'PAIHSMT' might be. You may have wondered the same thing, but been hesitant to ask. Therefore, a return to what you learned in confirmation classes, with a brief look at Christian symbolism.
In 1905 or so, Miss Isabelle Emberly arrived from Boston to serve as a nurse at St. Matthew's Hospital. [In the old photograph framed in the Parish Hall, showing the Hospital and staff, she is the lady standing in the doorway.] Legend has it that one night at the Hospital she was relaxing by carving on a wooden cigar box, when Mr. Betticher or Archdeacon Stuck walked by. "Hey," commented whomever, "That's pretty good. You should carve the altar" [which was blank at this point] So she did. And somewhere along the line the design was arrived at, incorporating 5 basic Christian symbols. 'PAIHSMT' isn't a word; it's a theology and viewpoint, incorporating Christian symbolism. From left to right:
The "P", superimposed on an "X", is actually the "Chi-Rho", a "sacred monogram" of Christ. "Sacred monograms" were developed by early Christians as a secret sign of the faith, a kind of secret code. The Chi-Rho is composed of the first two Greek letters of the word "Christ" (XPICTOC). According to the 4th century Church historian Eusebius, on the eve of a major and decisive battle, the then pagan Emperor Constantine suddenly had a vision - which included the 'Chi-Rho' and the inscription (in Greek) "Conquer by this sign". Inscribing the monogram on his banners and standards, Constantine triumphed the next day (October 28th, 312AD) and subsequently converted to Christianity. Soon after he issued the "Edict of Milan", legalizing Christianity and ending 300 years of Christian persecution. Given this part of our history, it should remind us never to persecute others, for we too once were persecuted.
The second carved symbol, the "A", is actually the Greek letter "Alpha", the first letter of the Greek alphabet. The fourth symbol on the altar, the weird looking "M", is actually the Greek letter "Omega", the last letter of the Greek alphabet. (If we were dealing in English and not Greek, we would be looking at an "A" and a "Z" on our altar). In Christian symbolism, the two letters together refer to the passage in The Revelation to John 1:8 "I am the Alpha and Omega, " says the Lord God. " God is the beginning of each day, the beginning of our life, the beginning of all Life; and the End of each day, our Life, and all Life. (Or, as we constantly repeat throughout our services, "...as it was in the beginning, it is now, and it will be forever. ")
The "IHS" in the middle panel of the altar is another of the ancient monograms. Originally it was an abbreviation of the first three letters in Greek of the name "Jesus": "IHCOYC" (The "S" for "C" is an attempt to deal with the Greek letter "Sigma"). Later, folks derived all kinds of meanings in Latin for the letters: " Jesus Hominum Salvator" ("Jesus, Savior of Men"); " In Hoc Signo Vinces" ("In this sign, you shall conquer" - back to Constantine and the "Chi-Rho" again); "Jesum Habemus Socium" (We have Jesus as our Companion") are a few of them.
The last symbol, the fifth symbol over on the right, which visitors are reading as a "T" is, of course, a Cross. This particular design is known as the Celtic Cross, because of its popularity in the Church in early Ireland. The circle, behind the Cross, is usually taken as representing the Trinity - both the Trinity and the Circle having neither beginnings nor endings. Tradition has it that Archdeacon Stuck was particularly fond of the Celtic Cross. At the least, the flag of the Church in Alaska, which used to be in St. Mark's/Nenana, shows a Celtic Cross.
Finally, notice one last touch. Interspersed between each of the panels Ms. Emberly has carved vines, recalling the famous passage in John 15: "I am the vine, you are the branches". That's you and I, our lives intertwined with each and with Christ. The vines are hard to see; you have to kneel at the rail to see them. Similarly and finally and always, so with our lives, for "Your life is hid with Christ in God. " (Colossians 3:3).
The WORD on the Altar - "PAIHST"- is the Only Word, and all of our lives are intertwined and hid in Him.
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