In our Epistle reading for Trinity Sunday, we heard the following.
“Surrounding this throne were twenty-four other thrones upon which were seated twenty-four elders; they were clothed in white garments and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning and peals of thunder; before it burned seven flaming torches, the seven spirits of God. The floor around the throne was like a sea of glass that was crystal-clear. At the very center, around the throne itself, stood four living creatures covered with eyes front and back. The first creature resembled a lion; the second, an ox; the third had the face of a man; while the fourth looked like an eagle in flight. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and eyes all over, inside and out. Day and night, without pause, they sing: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, He who was, and who is, and who is to come!”
What some may not know is that the four Living Creatures were likened to the four Gospel writers by St. Irenaeus (140-202). These four living creatures are sometimes carved into the church pulpits or the four corners of an altar.
St. Irenaeus explained the symbolism as follows:
St. Matthew is represented by a divine man because the Gospel highlights Jesus’ entry into this world, first by presenting His family lineage — “A family record of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1) — and His incarnation and birth: “Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about” (Mt 1:18). “This then,” according to St. Irenaeus, “is the Gospel of His humanity; for which reason it is, too, that the character of a humble and meek man is kept up through the whole Gospel.”
St. Mark, represented by the winged lion, references the Prophet Isaiah when he begins his gospel: “Here begins the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In Isaiah the prophet it is written: ‘I send my messenger before you to prepare your way: a herald’s voice in the desert, crying, “Make ready the way of the Lord, clear Him a straight path.’” “The voice in the desert crying” reminds one of a lion’s roar, and the prophetical spirit descending to earth reminds one of a “winged message.” The lion also signified royalty, an appropriate symbol for the Son of God.
The winged ox represents St. Luke. Oxen were used in temple sacrifices. For instance, when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Jerusalem, an ox and a fatling were sacrificed every six steps (2 Sm 6). St. Luke begins his Gospel with the announcement of the birth of St. John the Baptizer to his father, the priest Zechariah, who was offering sacrifice in the Temple (Lk 1). St. Luke also includes the parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the fatted calf is slaughtered, not only to celebrate the younger son’s return, but also to foreshadow the joy we must have in receiving reconciliation through our most merciful Savior who as Priest offered Himself in sacrifice to forgive our sins. Therefore, the winged ox reminds us of the priestly character of our Lord and His sacrifice for our redemption.
Lastly, St. John is represented by the rising eagle. The Gospel begins with the “lofty” prologue and “rises” to pierce most deeply the mysteries of God, the relationship between the Father and the Son, and the incarnation: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. He was present to God in the beginning. Through Him all things came into being, and apart from Him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:1-3). And “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we have seen His glory: The glory of an only Son coming from the Father filled with enduring love” (Jn 1:14). The Gospel of St. John, unlike the other Gospels, engages the reader with the most profound teachings of our Lord, such as the long discourses Jesus has with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, and the beautiful teachings on the Bread of Life and the Good Shepherd. Jesus, too, identified Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life,” and anyone who embraces Him as such will rise to everlasting life with Him.
The excellent source material comes from here: