The Christian hope as an anchor

Continuing my nautical theme from last week, my mind goes to a ship’s anchor. Anchors come in all shapes and sizes. According to one modern definition, an anchor is “ “a heavy weight, normally made of metal, used to connect a boat or ship to the bed of a body of water for the purpose of preventing the vessel from drifting due to wind or current. Used symbolically, an anchor reflects that which provides stability, confidence and certainty.”

When I was young, I belonged to the Life Boys. Every Monday evening I went down to our local Baptist church wearing a sailors’ blue jersey and a round sailors’ hat. On the jersey I wore a large brass badge featuring an anchor, for the anchor was the logo of the Boys Brigade, of which we were the Junior Section. Although Life Boys are no longer, the Boys Brigade continues, with its Junior Section now called ‘Anchors’.

Along with the logo, there is the BB motto “sure and steadfast”, taken from taken from the letter to the Hebrews, where the writer likens the Christian hope in Jesus as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebs 6.19 NRSV). Or as the GNB translates: “We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure”. A little strangely Eugene Peterson in The Message does away with the anchor imagery altogether – “We who have run for our very lives to God have every reason to grab the promised hope with both hands and never let it go. It’s an unbreakable spiritual lifeline.” – and in doing so he misses out on the symbolism..

But to return to my experience of Life Boys and Boys Brigade. At our monthly church parade we often used to sing the Boys Brigade hymn, which begins:

“Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?”

This hymn ends

“Will your eyes behold through the morning light
the city of gold and the harbour bright?
Will you anchor safe by the heavenly shore,
When life’s storms are past for evermore”

To which the chorus replies:

“We have an anchor that keeps the soul
steadfast and sure while the billows roll;
fastened to the rock which cannot move,
grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love”

Sadly in Christian circles today the anchor symbolism has largely fallen out of use – it all sounds very old-fashioned. However, up until around 300 AD the anchor was one of the primary Christian symbols – like the ‘fish’ it was a secret sign of Christian believing. Whereas the fish (ichthus in Greek represented a confession of faith in ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’, the anchor (anchura in Greek) could involve a word play affirming life ‘in the Lord’ (en kurio).

According to Michael Card, “The first century symbol wasn’t the cross; it was the anchor. If I’m a first century Christian and I’m hiding in the catacombs and three of my best friends have just been thrown to the lions or burned at the stake, or crucified and set ablaze as torches at one of Nero’s garden parties, the symb0l that most encourages me in my faith is the anchor. When I see it, I’m, reminded that Jesus is my anchor”. Certainly in the catacombs in Rome, where the early Christians were buried, anchors abound. In the cemetery of St Priscilla, for instance, some 70 examples of anchors are to be found.

Where did the Christians get the idea to use an anchor to symbolize their faith? The truth is that the anchor was a familiar literary metaphor in the classical world used to depict the concept of security. Virgil, for instance, spoke of “the firm grip of the anchor’s teeth holding the ship fast” (Aeneid 6.3-5) – the anchor in question would have been an iron anchor with two wings, rather than an ancient stone anchor. Heoliodros said that “every hope is an anchor” (Aetheopica 8.6.9).

For a nation like the British where sailing is a great past-time, I think there is much to be said for continuing to use the metaphor of the anchor today. So, whenever I take a funeral, in one of my prayers I always praise God for Jesus “for his Cross where our sins are forgiven – for his Resurrection, on which our hope of life is anchored”. What a difference Jesus makes – to living and to dying. It means that we can face death with confidence, knowing that death is not the end, but rather the gateway into a new and fuller life. Thank God, the Christian hope is “sure and steadfast”.

3 comments

  1. Very interesting about the use of the anchor in the early church. There is in fact a modern song I can think of which uses the symbolism of an anchor. It is called ‘Cornerstone’ and is from Hillsongs, although it may use older lyrics. However it contains a dreadful mixed metaphor, “my anchor holds within the veil”.

    1. You can probably blame Edward Mote for that (the original hymn is “My hope is built on nothing less”), but that hymn is borrowing from Hebrews 6:19: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain…”.

  2. Hi Paul,

    Another interesting and very apt blog. I am repeatedly surprised at the similarities between your childhood experiences and mine although we lived on opposite sides of the world. I, too, grew up through Life Boys and Boys Brigade and came to love the anchor symbol and that hymn. Boys (and Girls) Brigades have now been replaced here with Ikonz for Boys and Ikonz for Girls. They seem to be going very successfully.

    Brian

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