Tigers are considered the most iconic of the big cats. Tigers, being the largest felines in the world, are considered by many cultures to be a symbol of strength, courage, independence and majestic dignity.
The tiger is careful, crafty and suspicious in a good way. It is careful to avoid pitfalls and traps. It is rarely taken by surprise. Following the example of the tiger, we must stay alert, we must walk carefully, and we must be wise in the Lord.
There are two subspecies of tiger, commonly referred to as the continental tiger and the Sunda island tiger. All remaining island tigers are found only in the island of Sumatra. The continental tigers are found in the mainland of Asia, stretching from India to Siberia and south to the Malay peninsular. The largest tiger is the Siberian or Amur, while the smallest tiger is the Sumatran.
No two tigers have the same stripes, and their stripes are as individual as fingerprints are for human beings. A tiger’s stripes are important for survival in the wild as they act as camouflage which appear as moving shadows in long grass and in trees. Therefore the stripes of the tiger are what make the tiger majestic and unique.
In the Bible, lions and leopards are mentioned but no tigers. Furthermore, interestingly there is not one mention of a domestic cat.
It is because tigers are not native to the Middle East. We can assume that none of the Hebrew speaking, Aramaic speaking, or Greek speaking authors ever saw or heard of a tiger.
The closest to the tiger in the Bible would be the lion which also symbolizes authority and royalty. On top of that, some older English translations of the Bible mistakenly translated lion as tiger in some texts.
‘Christ the Tiger’
Interestingly, there is an autobiography called “Christ the Tiger” by Thomas Howard published in 1967. Howard was born evangelical in 1935, but converted to Catholicism in 1985.
“Christ the Tiger” was written before Howard became Catholic. It is not an exposition about Christ, but rather an autobiography of a sharp and restless mind. The book should have been named “Tom the Tiger,” although this title would not have sold the book.
In his book, Howard spends a long time unveiling the unmanageable thoughts of a young man who has been caught up by the love of Christ rather than portraying Christ himself. Initially he saw dogmas and institutions as obscuring the powerful truth of God’s love in Christ. He argues that Jesus is always greater than any theology. However, Howard demonstrates his awareness that without those institutions there would not be any way of encountering Christ the tiger.
This book radically presents who Christ is and what faith in him means. Howard was greatly influenced by the famous writer, C.S. Lewis, who was in turn influenced by another great writer, G.K. Chesterton. Howard did his doctoral dissertation on the writings of Charles Williams who was a good friend of Lewis. Howard is generally considered an expert on the writings of Williams.
Lewis and Williams compared Christ to a lion, but Chesterton and Howard compared him to a tiger. Chesterton says that when you make the claim that God is a reality like a tiger, which is a reason for changing your life, the modern world will try to stop you if it can. Then, be prepared to be opposed. Prior to that, T.S. Elliot, a poet, had also used the image of Christ as a tiger in his poem “Gerontion.”
Nonetheless, whether it is a tiger or a lion to signify Christ, the idea is to manifest Christ as majestic, courageous, and authoritative. We, who are the disciples of Christ, can imitate him in this way too.
Father Francis Lim is a Jesuit priest. He wrote this article for Today’s Catholic, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Kuching in Sarawak.