If you are like me, then you've sat in the pew, tuned out the preacher, and stared at those three mystical letters placed strategically somewhere in front of the podium, wondering what in the world they could mean. IHS. "In His Service?" "It's His Saints?" "In Holy Spirit?" I might as well tell you right off that nobody I have found knows where they originated or what they mean. There are many hypothesis, but nobody knows for sure from whence they came. So I ask, how can something be so important, as to warrant its placement at the front and center of the Church, and yet nobody can say for sure what it means?
Many suppose that they are the first three Greek letters of Jesus' name, and they call it a monogram. We must ask, "Why would anyone want to display the first three letters of Jesus' name?" One wouldn't write "PET" for Peter, or "MOS" for Moses, or "JAM" for James. So why IHS for Jesus.
In his book Light From the Ancient Past, Jack Finegan on page 320 noted that scribes sometimes would write only the first and last letters of a sacred name so as to save time and space. He said that Jesus was written as IC, or sometimes as IHC or IH, and that Christ appeared as XC or XPC. He doesn't give a source for this claim but noted that the earliest evidence of these abbreviations were found in an unknown Gospel from the second century. Still, none of this can explain for us where IHS originated.
It's actually a stretch to even say that IHS are the first three Greek letters of Jesus' name. His name from the Greek and transliterated into English is "Iesous." One can immediately see that IHS are not the first three letters of His name. The Catholic Encyclopedia even admits this.
- From the beginning, however, in Christian inscriptions the nomina sacra, or names of Jesus Christ, were shortened by contraction, thus IC and XC or IHS and XPS for Iesous Christos. These Greek monograms continued to be used in Latin during the Middle Ages. Eventually the right meaning was lost, and erroneous interpretation of IHS led to the faulty orthography "Jhesus".
According to the Greek Alphabet, our English word Jesus would be spelled Iesous in the Greek. However, if you capitalize the "e" in the Greek, it sometimes changes to "H". So technically I suppose one could say that IHS are the first three letters of Jesus name, if they spell it with an upper case E as "JEsus." Then "JEs" in English letters would be "IHs" in Greek. The last letter "s" would have to remain small, for there is no upper case "S" in the Greek.
Others propose that IHS might mean "Jesus hominum Salvator," (Jesus the Saviour of men), or still others believe that it might mean "I Have Suffered". As you can see there are several opinions as to what "IHS" might mean or from where it came. About the only sure thing is that it didn't come from the Bible. In the Catholic Encyclopedia, it is again written that,
- "The monogram became more popular after the twelfth century when St. Bernard insisted much on devotion to the Holy name of Jesus, and the fourteenth, when the founder of the Jesuati, Blessed John Colombini (d. 1367), usually wore it on his breast. Towards the close of the Middle Ages IHS became a symbol, quite like the chi-rho in the Constantinian period."
It should be put forth that there is another possibility of where IHS came from. Perhaps it was not originally a Christian symbol at all. It has been suggested that IHS actually stood for the three persons of the pagan Trinity, namely Isis (the mother), Horus (the child), and Seb (the father). Some argue that during the infant stage of the Church, it was adopted into the Faith as a way of meshing in with the surrounding pagans. This was not an uncommon practice, as the persecution of Christians in those days was quite severe. We think that this is every bit as logical as the way one must shift the letters around in Jesus' name to make IHS mean what they want it to mean.
Nevertheless, it seems to us quite curious that the Denominations would place a plaque with these three mystery letters in such a prominent place when it can't even be said for sure what they mean or from where they come. But such is how we find many of their traditions.