The center panel consists of three images: the dove, the cross and the lamb. The power which these three symbols hold for Christendom is to be seen only in the absence of any embellishment. The dove symbolizes the creative Spirit of God in human history. The cross is an instrument of execution on which faith perceives the fullness of divinity and humanity. The lamb is the biblical symbol of sacrifice and prosperity, physically and spiritually.
The side panels contain the emblems of the four gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The grey background is composed of the repeating symbols of “IHS” and a cross interwoven with thorns. The symbols for the Apostles lie within the Old Testament writings of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel was a priest during the Babylonian exile. There he had a vision which he interpreted as a call to his prophetic ministry. Looking to the North, the direction of mystery, he witnessed an approaching storm with a great cloud and lightning flashing about it. In that cloud Ezekiel envisioned the likeness of four living creatures. They had the form of men, but each was bronze in color with four faces and four wings. The four faces were of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle.
Ezekiel knew this to be a vision of the glory of God calling him to preach to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Thus he set about the task of judgment and challenge to his countrymen in a foreign land. So moving was this vision of Ezekiel, that centuries later it influenced the vision in Revelation (4:6).
Christians related these symbols to the Gospels emphasizing four aspects of the nature of Jesus Christ.
Matthew is given the symbol of a man with wings. Written for Jewish-Christians, the Gospel helps them to relate to this exceptional Jew. Jesus’ humanity and Jewishness is immediately affirmed by the Gospel, tracing the genealogy of Jesus back through the great leaders of Israel all the way to David and Abraham. His life began with his birth at Bethlehem. Born of human flesh, he lived the life we must live and died as all men must die. That Jesus was a man may not be the last word we want to say about our Lord, but it is surely the first.
Mark, with the symbol of a lion with wings, begins with the story of John the Baptist in the desert, the home of wild beasts. Written for Christians being persecuted in Rome, this Gospel was a source of strength for the martyr community. The courage of a lion is required of the intended reader.
Luke is assigned the ox with wings. The Gospel begins with Zechariah in the Temple, the place of animal sacrifice. It is in Luke that we read of the manger scene for Jesus’ birth, recalling the patient humility of waiting for the fullness of time when God would be with us (Emmanuel). Most of all, Luke describes Jesus as being the servant of others, bearing the burden of the poor and oppressed; surely the ox, a humble beast of burden, is an appropriate symbol.
John has the eagle as its symbol. In the Fourth Gospel, the face of Jesus is illuminated by God’s very presence. To look upon that face is to be carried on a flight to the high reaches, soaring on eagle’s wings to the very gates of heaven, lifting our spirits to God. It is that way in th Fourth Gospel from the opening words, the hymn of the Incarnation. Throughout the altar triptych are seen fleur-de-lis, symbolizing purity, and trefoils and triquetras, symbolizing the Trinity.