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Hallo again to all.

Since the very earliest days of Christianity, the community of Christians and its organized worship activities have depended on symbols. Nowhere in the Bible is there mention of the ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ) pictogram that nearly everyone recognizes as a Christian symbol, but despite its extra-Biblical origins, there seems to be almost no controversy over its validity and appropriateness.

Symbols are everywere around you in church, almost all intentional. In general we've internalized them so much that they are hard to remember. Not just abstract symbols like the cross or the Chi-Rho, or artistic symbols like the halo or the dove, but real physical symbols like bishops' mitres and palm branches and chalices. There have been days, in truth, when we've wondered whether there was anything inside the church (save perhaps the legally-required emergency fire exit signs) that was not a Christian symbol.

In the days before most of the faithful were literate, symbols played a much more prominent role. Of course, there were books written to explain what the symbols meant, so that the literate and trained could explain them to the masses. We have always enjoyed the Physiologus, a bestiary from the very earliest days of the church, full of allegorical tales of real and imagined beasts. Yea, even the gryphon, which Anglicans Online has used on our pages for many years, was described there. We must confess that we have a bit of a hard time remembering the meaning of the manticore or the bucentaur, or even the bear and the boar. Symbols work only if you can remember what they symbolize, and our modern minds are cluttered with more prosaic symbols like 'red octagon means stop' and 'an underlined blue word means that you can click on it and something will happen'.

The church has no monopoly on symbols. Consider corporate logos, gang signs and graffiti, the shapes of beverage bottles, road signs, carved pumpkin faces, or the on-off switch on a piece of electronic equipment. It's hard to get by in modern society without knowing many of its symbols. Even if you can't remember them, you recognize them. Every elevator in the Western world has a five-pointed star on or next to the button that will take you to the floor that exits the building.

Some symbols don't have to be taught or learned. Their very being is symbolic. Oh, we were probably taught by a florist association that red roses symbolize love and white roses symbolize friendship, or some such. But a rose by itself, with no explanation or handbook, symbolizes so much about life and love and God's grace. We aren't sure we've ever seen roses on an Anglican altar, so there might be some symbolic reason why altar flowers tend towards lilies and their ilk. But we'd bet that if in fact there is some traditional symbolic reason why roses oughtn't be used on an altar, that if you covered an altar with roses and held a worship service, nobody but the altar guild and the recently-educated clergy would notice or care.

Yesterday at first light we went to a nursery, the kind that sells plants, and walked up and down the aisles in search of a particular small item that wouldn't even cost as much as the fuel we consumed driving there. We were transfixed by how much those rows and rows of new plants, waiting to be taken home and put into the ground, symbolized (if not actually demonstrated) God's renewal of all things. We'd recently bought NT Wright's newest book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, and have felt a little too intimidated by its 350 pages to actually start reading it. Walking down row after row of new little pansies and geraniums and vinca, we were suddenly struck with the notion that maybe we didn't have to read it; maybe God was telling us through the new life and new hope of these plants everything that we really needed to know about it, and could thereby save 349 pages. There's room on our bookshelf.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 1 June 2008

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