I’ve spent my life working with symbols. Crosses, bread that is broken, wine in a chalice, oil for anointing, even holy smoke for prayers ascending…and making certain people cough. Symbols are a major part of my priest gig. But symbols are an everyday part of our lives, not just religious. Symbols are everywhere.
I was royally reminded by the panoply of symbols at Her Majesty’s glorious funeral on Monday. It reminded me of my days at the Cathedral in Atlanta, particularly assisting Bishop Judson Child. He took extra time, breaking me into the Anglican symbols, many that were new to me.
Being birthed and raised South of God, my initial symbol was a book, the Bible, in particular. It was a symbol of God communicating with God’s people (back in the day, His people). The Book was packed with stories, teachings, history, parables, poetry, prophesy, to name a few. One problem was that those that read it often did not differentiate one type (genre, for the sophisticated) from another. It was simply Scripture, Holy Scripture, only differentiated in red letters, blood red, if spoken by Jesus. Myth was blended with history. Story was mixed with poetry. It was God’s Word. There was a simple way of dealing with it in most South of God churches: God said it. I believe it. That settles it! There was a simple equation of the Words of the Bible and “God said it”. Not so fast, Sparky.
I have another saying, a variation on wisdom from H. L. Mencken, not Jesus, I admit, but wise. This saying has been a cornerstone for me, so much that I have known to carry it with me in my left back pocket: There’s a simple answer to every complex question. And it’s wrong.
In my tribe, South of God, a preacher was known by his floppy Bible that he could cast about while making his three points. You had to shop for just the “right”, and I do mean Right, flop. Mine was stiff, an Oxford variation, which is probably where I went wrong.
When I switched tribes, my symbols changed. We still had the Bible, and we would read through most of it because of a thing we call the “lectionary”, which assigns the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Gospel lessons to be read on each Sunday. This means that you are getting a broad reading of The Book over a three year period, and not the hobby horse, sugar stick passages that Brother Lovejoy “really loves to preach on” that confirms his prejudices and predilections. I have to confess that as an Episcopal priest dealing with the lectionary, there were many Sundays when I wished to God that did not have to preach on some particularly difficult passages. But thems the rules!
In addition to the Bible, there are two other preeminent symbols that were in play for me each Sunday, the bread and the wine. These are the two things that Jesus decided to use to make his point with his followers, his disciples on the last night of his time with them. Bread and wine.
Jesus took this from his tradition, his tribe, the Jewish people, who took bread and wine, with words of thanksgiving before a meal. He transposed this familiar practice, charging it with words of presence and purpose. He took, blessed, broke, and gave this bread, promising that he would be present when his community gathered in the spirit of his love. It was a regular re-minder of God’s abiding with God’s people, as well as the purpose for which we were living. Powerful symbols, sacraments we call them, that communicate the Divine Presence. It would prove to be the pearl of great price for me, leaving my home group to go to another that had preserved the original power of the symbol, presenting the symbol on a more regular basis. Indeed, a great price, but it bought me my soul, my peace, and my purpose.
On Monday, I noted the pregnant symbols that rode on top of the Queen’s casket. A scepter, the orb, and a crown. The symbols hung faithfully throughout the transport from Westminster Abbey, through the streets of London, to St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. These symbols were used in the coronation of Elizabeth in 1953. The scepter and orb was created in 1661. The crown was made for King George, Elizabeth’s father in 1937, made of gold, 2868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 4 rubies.
The scepter and crown are symbols of the rule of the monarch, while the orb has a cross on its top to remind the monarch that the power emanates from God. I found it fascinating that before the coffin was lowered to the crypt, the symbols were removed by the crown jeweler, Mark Appleby (with no relation to the restaurant), using white gloves, handing the objects to the Dean of Windsor, who placed each object on a purple cushion resting on the High Altar, again affirming the connection of the monarch to the Divine authority. Those same objects will be used to symbolically communicate the transfer of power to King Charles at a later time. The intent of the symbolism seems clear on the face of it. The question is how is this encoded action interpreted/perceived by the people who live under its influence.
Watching this drama play out in Scotland and London, the role of symbols is front and center for the United Kingdom and the Church of England. They were treated with respect and reverence as this transition was marked in the life of the people. Hopefully, these symbols will signal both the change and the stability as they move to the rule of a new monarch, as the longest tenure has ended.
The Queen’s symbols are rarified, while our everyday symbols may evade our conscious awareness. Symbols form a core part of our human experience, communicating anchoring connections in the face of change. What symbols function for you in a meaningful way? What are the symbols in your life that give energy to your living? And what symbols have receded in the electrical charge they convey?
Maybe it’s just me, my quirkiness, but I seem to have an ark of symbols that are powerful for me, almost on a daily basis.
A watch from my Dad, his Delta watch, connects me to him in an powerful way. It symbolizes his work ethic, his loyalty, and the service motivation of him and his company.
My grandfather’s Atlanta Police badge symbolizes his service and honor. A old diner coffee cup that was his sits on my desk reminding me of our “communion” as I was growing up as a young boy.
My mother’s paintings surround me, and connect me to her creative spirit every time I look at them.
Carlyle Marney’s pipe, his favorite, given to me by his wife, Elizabeth, reminds me of his commitment to follow the Gospel wherever it leads, and his intellectual curiosity. The pipe has a deep bend, like him, like me.
And now, the St. Damiano Cross of St. Francis, sits before me on my window in front of my desk, to remind me of my commitment to follow Francis in being an instrument of God in the world. It also serves a deep symbol of Francis’ passion to rebuild the Church.
These are just a few. There are so many more. My charcoal etching of Thomas Merton, spirited out of the Trappist monastery by ex-New York cop turned monk, Patrick Duffy; a picture of my family at the Wheeler Rodeo in Tyler, Texas; a flag my my sailboat that taught me to feel and catch the wind; a picture of my cast of Godspell where I caught a whiff of the Gospel; a coffee mug from Folly Beach, where I learned almost everything I know of church. I am a person of symbols, thriving on their power to re-mind, to connect, to empower, to unleash. I am blessed and am grateful. Two good eyes, and sometimes, I see.
What are the symbols in your life that connect you across time and space? What are the symbols that bring meaning to your existence? While they may not have 2868 diamonds in them, or have been passed down through the ages of monarchs, they are worthy. But only when you recognize them, drawing the power from their symbolic valence and presence.
I invite you, once again for a “pause”, to consider the significant symbols in your life. No white gloves required, but handle with care. Pause, reflect, ponder…..and then give thanks for those connections.