Every now and then, someone asks me about the letters sometimes seen on Greek icons of Nicholas of Myra — specifically on his omophorion, the stole bishops wear about the neck.
Let’s look more closely:
They can be quite mystifying, but the mystery is easy to solve.
First, the most common are those seen on the right in the image above. They should be read in this order:
Τhey abbreviate the Greek words
Φως Χριστού Φαίνει Πάσι
Phos Khristou Phainei Pasi
“The light (PHos) of Christ (KHristou ) Shines (PHainei) on all (Pasi )
“The Light of Christ Shines Upon All.”
You may also see the last word in Greek as Πάσιν/pasin, with the same meaning.
During the weekdays of Lent, the Eucharistic liturgy — that is, the one in which the bread and wine are consecrated — is not used. Instead the evening liturgy used is called the “Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.” When communion is given during this vespers liturgy, the “gifts” used — that is, the bread and wine — were previously consecrated during the Eucharistic liturgy of the preceding Sunday. That is why they are called “presanctified gifts.”
Now at one point in that Vespers communion liturgy, the priest looks at the icon of Christ and says:
“The light of Christ…”
Then he turns to the congregation and says:
“…shines upon all.”
So that is the origin of the ΦΧΦΠ.
Another abbreviation is also sometimes seen on the omophorion, as in the image on this page. It is:
You may have already guessed that the IC is for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ — Iesous Khristos — “Jesus Christ.” You will of course remember that on Greek icons the older form of “S” is C and the newer form Σ.
You might at first be puzzled by the N K, until you recall the very common cross abbreviation:
IC XC NIKA
“Iesous Khristos Nika”
“Jesus Christ Conquers.”
And that is what the N K on the omophorion stands for: N[I]K[A] — “[he] Conquers.”