Why artists use a halo to depict saints and angels

Question from MP, United Kingdom

Where did the idea of a halo come from?

The idea that holy figures in Christianity be depicted with a halo (or, more accurately a nimbus) is a direct borrowing from late Roman and Hellenistic art. The ‘disc’ of the sun was frequently used to indicate divinity, initially with the various sun gods, but soon with almost every deity in the pantheon. Roman emperors were usually depicted with the nimbus since the time of Aurelius (AD270-275), indicating their status as divine ‘sons of God’.

Constantine, prior to his conversion to Christianity, was depicted with the nimbus and the title Sol Invictus (‘invincible sun’), but dropped both the title and the artistic portrayal after establishing Christianity as the official Imperial religion. Around this time the symbology of sun-worship started to be applied to Jesus Christ. Carsten Peter Thiede goes as far as to say: “One connection between Christ and the sun still visible today is the fact that his resurrection is not celebrated on the Sabbath, but on Sun-day, the Dies Solis.” [Heritage of the First Christians, Lion, 1992, p.127] It was then a short step to apply the solar disc to other principal Christian saints.

A number of varieties of nimbus (halo) exist in Christian art, including triangular ones representative of the Trinity, square ones for ‘living’ saints (who were alive when the picture was drawn) and, in the case of Mary, it is common to find her halo full of stars, symbolising her status as the ‘Queen of Heaven’.

 The contemporary cultural depiction of the halo as a sort of hovering frisbee above the heads of dead people in heaven or angels, is therefore a continuation of Greco-Roman Pagan art dating back thousands of years. As with those original artists, the halo is an easy illustrator’s short cut to set the scene or characterise a person as good, although perhaps not quite divine.

The possible religious meaning of abracadabra

Question from RS, United Kingdom

I’ve been told that magicians used ‘Abracadabra’ as the name of God, because it means ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. Is this true?

‘Abracadabra’ has a convoluted history as a ‘magical word’, but it has been claimed that it was used in medieval cabbala (or kabbalah) and derived from the initials of the Hebrew words Ab (Father), Ben (Son) and Ruach A’Cadsh (Holy Spirit).

It was apparently used as a charm against fevers and toothache and may have formed part of incantation rites among the cabalists, a secret society which incorporated both Jewish and Christian ideas and used ritual magic, charms and mystical anagrams. They claimed to be able to converse with the dead and were often grouped in with alchemists and pseudo-Christian sects.

Kabbalah has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance recently, helped by a number of high profile celebrities adopting it. ‘Abracadabra’ is now most commonly used as a nonsense word by stage magicians, most of whom it can be assumed are not trying to invoke the power of God to make their ‘spells’ work.

Popular children’s author JK Rowling used a variant spelling ‘Avada Kedavra’ as the ‘last and worse’ cursing spell, ‘the killing curse’, in her book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [published by Bloomsbury, 2000, p.190] and may have been drawing on other traditions regarding the origin of the word.

Thanks for your question, RS.

God’s faithfulness (when God appears unfaithful)

Question from MF, USA

Why do we call God “faithful” when the #1 fact we know about him is that he is unpredictable – that we don’t ever know what he is going to do? How is it possible to reconcile these two notions of reliability and unreliability?

To say that the prime fact we ‘know’ about God is the unpredictability of the divine nature is perhaps an interesting starting point. But certainly, the experience of many Christians is that there are no formulas, scientific or magic, for determining the outcome of events in which God is involved. Much creative theology has been expended in this area, for example, justifying the existence of evil in a world created by a good God (or at least a God that Christian theology postulates as good).

A simple answer as to why Christians call God faithful is because of the self-declarations of divine faithfulness recorded in the Bible (see Deuteronomy chapter 31, verse 6, which is reiterated in the New Testament in Hebrews chapter 13, verse 5: “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”). Accepting the Bible as the ‘Word of God’ naturally results in ascribing faithfulness to God, because the Bible describes God as being faithful.

On a practical level, it can be hard to reconcile those Biblical assertions with day-to-day Christian experience. Empathy-based understandings of God, revolving around the crucifixion event, aid an appreciation that sometimes Christians feel abandoned. The empathy comes from recognising that the revelation of God found in the Incarnation, directly reveals God’s own experience of abandonment. The cry from the cross, echoing the psalmist, ‘My God, why have you abandoned me’ (Matthew chapter 27, verse 46, cf Psalm 22, verse 1), indicates that this human experience of abandonment, is also experienced by God.

An interesting aside to this is that at the crucifixion, God not only experiences death within the divine nature (therefore neutralising the limited power of death by absorbing it into the unlimited Godhead), but also experiences the pain of bereavement, separation and loss caused by death, as the Father sees the Son die on the cross.

Ultimately, believing that God is reliable, despite what appears to be evidence to the contrary, is a matter of personal faith. It can seem trite to say that God works ‘for the good’ in all circumstances, regardless of appearances. It is a Biblical standpoint (see Romans, chapter 8, verse 28), but can lead to some interesting difficulties if pushed.

For example, it reduces God’s moral activity to ‘the ends justify the means’ and it can also be used to ascribe harm or evil to God. Not commenting on God’s ‘mysterious ways’ of working, is often a similar cop out used to avoid the tough question of what God is actually playing at. There are a number of other theological reasons (or excuses) for God’s inactivity. The tension between the coming of the kingdom of God now and the fulfilment of God’s intentions in the future is often used to explain why God has not healed, or intervened in a situation.

A final option is that the universe operates in a way that gives human beings a choice. What humans see as ‘unreliability’ is actually the workings out of probability. Some people are ‘luckier’ than others, if their life experiences are plotted out on a probability graph. (This idea has been popularised by Dilbert author Scott Adams in his serious book, God’s Debris). Living in an unreliable universe could be both the result of human sin – in choosing to no longer operate under God’s direct rule, humans become subject to the vagaries of chance – and the means by which human beings are brought to a realisation that they need God. The unreliability of life produces a ‘vale of soul-making’ designed to stimulate human expressions of free will that would not occur in a reliable universe. God’s withdrawal from this universe, and occasional interactions with it, add further to the unreliability of life, increasing the chances of human beings making free choices about whether to trust God or not.

Thanks for your question, MF.