Thursday, December 17

advent 2009

Christmas has more symbols associated with it than any other season of the liturgical year. The Chrismon trees that adorn our sanctuary from Advent through Epiphany are covered with them. And the Chrismons on those trees – though many – do not include all the hundreds of Christian symbols that exist. (Chrismon is derived from the Latin phrase, Christi monogramma, meaning “the monogram of Christ.”)

The use of Chrismons on an evergreen tree (itself a symbol) is only a 35-year tradition in our church. Yet the use of symbols in Christianity began with Jesus. At the Last Supper he told his disciples that the bread was a symbol for his body and the wine was a symbol of his blood. We Baptists believe that immersion symbolizes the death to one’s old life and resurrection into a new relationship with God.

Symbols are essential because they serve as reminders of Christianity’s basic truths. Also because until the invention of the printing press in 15th century Europe and the spread of literacy to ordinary people – only within the past few centuries – most Christians had to rely on pictures, stained glass, and statues in their churches to remember scripture readings and sermons.

Many of the symbols that help us, even today, to be reminded of deep truths about our faith were devised by unknown artists and artisans. They were inspired by what they had heard in church, of course, but until they created the symbols, they were disembodied words. Those creators are rarely given the credit they are due, because we take for granted their handiwork. Of all the blessings we should be thankful for during the Advent and Christmas seasons, we should not neglect to be grateful for those anonymous persons of long ago for the beauty and symbolism that adds so much to our worship.

The Murphy-Richardson Sunday School class is studying The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus J. Borg (HarperOne, 2003). One section of Chapter 3, “The Bible: The Heart of the Tradition,” is devoted to The Truth of Metaphor. A metaphor, in this context, “means the more-than-literal meaning of language.” (p. 49) And his discussion ties in well with the idea of symbolism. In his understanding of the Christmas story, familiar symbols have a meaning above and beyond themselves. Here are three quotations from p. 53:

The special star and the glory of the Lord filling the night sky suggest that this is the story of light in our darkness, that, in the language of the gospel of John, Jesus is the “light of the world.”

The story of Gentile wise men coming to the birthplace affirms that Jesus is the light not only for Israel but for all nations, for everybody, Jew and Gentile.

The story of shepherds as the first to be told of the birth affirms that the good news – the gospel – is especially for the marginalized.

Because mere words cannot fully convey God’s truth, we need both symbols and a more-than-literal understanding of scripture to begin to comprehend what Christmas means.

– George Pruden

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