Sunday, February 4, 2018

The problem with symbolism. . .

Symbols effectively communicate except to those who do not know them.  I well recall many years ago visiting a Lutheran Church on Long Island that had a very strange facade.  It was an outline of a fish, an appropriate and age old Christian symbol, but that outline was only really seen from the air.  So on the ground it was a symbol not easily identified even though it was familiar.  On the other side of the coin are symbols defined by those who design them.  Their meaning may be obvious to those who formed them but they must be taught to those who don't get it -- so symbols end up being like the game where someone is drawing something and everyone must guess what it is that he or she is drawing.

I was once enamored of such modern pursuit as the creation of new symbols for a new time.  Now I am less enthused.  The old symbols are not taught or identified as much precisely because they have given way to new ones that hardly anyone gets.  Visit any modern church built in the 1950s-1970s and you will know what I mean.  Traditional church architecture and traditional symbolism have given way to a free for all that leaves nearly all of us confused.

Take the font, for example.  I grew up with a traditional, eight sided font of quartersawn oak, probably similar to many of that era.  It was explained that the eight sides symbolized the 8th Day, the new creation, born of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I was told that you were being baptized into that death and resurrection (as St. Paul says) and that the font symbolized the beginning of this new creation.  So the shape of the font deepened this theological connection and gave shape to the faith we believe.

Of course, this symbolism was not new or unique to this congregation or even to Lutheranism but was part of a long history.  The early Christians believed that the resurrection and ascension of Christ was the start of the renewal of creation so that the day on which God accomplished this, the Resurrection of our Lord, was a day analogous to the first day of creation.  This was not limited to baptism but connected to the Lord's Day when Christians came together around the Word and Table of the Lord.  It all pointed to Christ, who has ushered in the dawn of a whole new era, a brand new day when sin and death were not the end and when God had the last Word through the redemption accomplished by His Son.  The shape of the font was one of the symbols that pointed to this. 

Symbols only have meaning and power when we teach them.  It is surely easier to recall the symbols of old, that have stood for generation after generation, than it is to introduce new symbols without the kind of heritage and history that makes them universal.  Perhaps the eight sided font means nothing to you.  That is not the fault of the font but of the teaching which has failed.  But it is something easily rectifiable by teaching again not only the symbolism of that font but the whole idea associated with the eighth day.  Some may find it difficult to bring back what was lost but it is much easier than trying to create tradition and symbolism anew.  Further, it is testament to our universal history and to the character of the catholic tradition that the ancient symbols are not sectarian or unique to one moment in time but transcend time and even denominational barriers.

Some of us have the tradition of Chrismons on the Christmas Tree.  This is a highly symbolic tradition and yet it has meaning only if we teach what the symbols mean.  The symbols on those trees were not invented for the moment but represent a long history and their meaning is nearly universal.  Symbols are great teaching tools but they lose the meaning when we forget to teach them and when we invent symbols to replace them we have an inherently greater task than remembering what we forgot.

We live in an iconic age.  Our children and our culture instinctively are drawn to symbols, logos, and signs that are shortcuts to everything from information to locations to programs.  We in the Church could do well to remember how important symbolism is and to remember our own great history of symbols and their meanings and how they can teach the faith.  But for them to work, we must actually teach them.  I venture to say that if you looked around any church building you would find a host of symbols embedded in everything from paraments to stained glass.  Ask what they are and what they mean and use them to teach the faith to your children.  It is a marvelously enriching experience.


Anonymous said...

I thought the eight day referred to the day of circumcision.

Anonymous said...

shapes have no meaning humans have learned to associated things with them