Lent: Traditions & Symbols as Tools

This sermon was to be given on Sunday, March 21, 2010.  Due to the uncharacteristic snow storm, dumping more than 8 inches, we had to cancel services.  Therefore, this has not been presented yet is part of the Lenten series on the basics of the Christian season.

Lent:  Symbols & Traditions as Tools

Reading through the references during these past few weeks gives me new ideas to consider about how we practice our faith.  Each time I begin a new week’s review and preparation for Sunday’s service, I can go from one idea to another by the various readings, the references, and the week’s experiences.  Fortunately, tools are available to help guide us in our faith development.

The lectionary readings are one tool to begin one’s planning, but sometimes those readings simply do not provide a message.  During Lent, the season itself is a tool to prepare each Christian for Easter.  Lent typically is viewed in dark tones, somber music, and even little humor.  The season of repentance is designed to place us in an attitude of quiet reflection, deep thought, and even tears as we tear away the layers of protection from our own sins.

Contrast the mood of Lent with the arrival of Easter.  The colors associated with Easter are the pastels of blue, red, yellow, and even purple.  The tones are almost transparent, fresh and pleasing to the senses.  Easter is filled with light from every source, not just the sun, but also the twinkling of sunrays on bright blue waters of the lakes and oceans around us.  Flowers of Easter show light through the bright colors of the blossoms from the crocus popping up under the fluffy snow, the jonquils opening against the dry, worn leaves lying on the ground, the forsythia twigs first show a yellowing tone and then the blossoms pop out against all the other brown shrubs in the yards.

Even nature knows it is time for renewal.  We live through the winter months first enchanted by the frost, the snowflakes, the drifts, and even the icicles hanging above our heads as we dart in and out of the cold.  The colors in our yards goes from a burnt brown to a wet glistening black as the snow melts away and the rain soaks the ground.  The season prepares us for the good news of Christ’s ministry, his crucifixion, and his resurrection.  Just as we long for winter to disappear, we also long for Christ in our lives.  The seasons can be tools for continued faith development.

The traditions and symbols we use to celebrate the seasons of the Christian calendar are tools to aid in our understanding of such an abstract concept as faith.  We struggle daily to follow the commandments God gave Moses and Jesus.  We struggle to share our faith with all we meet.  We struggle to express our faith openly to our family, our friends, our neighbors, but especially those we do not know at all—the strangers, the un-churched, and the lost children of God.  In our promise to share our faith with others, to fulfill the great commission of making disciples for Christ, we need tools.

Interestingly, the secular world has taken the tools we use and turned them into a money-making proposition.  The fashion industry knows the unwritten code of colors for Spring clothing.  The food companies have learned how to modify their goodies for the various seasons.  The stores are full of decorative items that can be displayed for a few days or weeks, and then replaced for the next season.  Why even the Christian book and retail stores focus on the seasons and are willing to advertise the current traditions and symbols used by Christians in any nationality.

Some of the history of the traditions and symbols is surprising, but almost all of them share a common explanation of how they began:  as the Christians began taking their faith with them moving farther and farther away from Jerusalem, they encountered new belief systems.  Being the minority in a community (or we might say being the newcomer or underdog), the Christian immigrants decided it was better to melt in with the established community rather than challenge them.  The traditions of the region would be maintained openly, but would also be adapted to the Christian faith.  This is especially notable as the Christians moved into the European countries where the Celtic and the Druids had long-established traditions.

Blending the traditions has allowed the Christian faith to grow.  Today we continue to use symbols and traditions that really developed in non-Christian cultures, but here it is hundreds of years since cultures blended and the world watches as Christians retell the story once more.  The traditions and symbols are tools we use to share the story with others in a visible manner.

Begin with the symbol of the fish:  a simple etching in the dirt linked one new Christian with another.  Think how difficult it was to meet new people and want to share about this new faith.  As one person met another, the casual conversation would move from the weather to the latest news in the area—this strange man walking around with a bunch of people trailing behind them.  Taking the walking stick in your hand or the toe of your sandal you draw a flattened arc slightly in front of you.  The move told the other one that you did believe and the other would complete the fish drawing in the dirt.  Now the conversation shifted from casual to the serious nature of Christianity.

For many today, we might wonder why a fish.  The stories in the gospels explain how we are to become fishers of men, but there is another reason hidden in the culture of Christ’s lifetime.  The Greek word for fish was ichthys” which was the acronym of the Greek phrase, “Jesus Christ, Son of God Savior,” the phrase represented by a word ended up in a non-spoken image of the fish.  Once the fish was completed, the conversation was safe.  Since it was in the dust at the feet, it could be erased in case someone walked up on them.  Such a simple tool helped spread the Christian faith far beyond the immediate group of disciples walking around the community.  (http://www.fisheaters.com/symbols.html;  accessed March 2010)

Probably the most common symbol used by Christians is the cross.  I am amazed how many styles of crosses there are even when I look through the jewelry racks in a store.  The designs are as varied as the number of denominations of churches, and each one has a separate story.  The cross has represented the Christian faith because Jesus died on the cross.  The images we have in our minds can be translated to the various images of a simple cross.  We see the crucifix-style cross as one favored by the Catholics.  The image of Christ suffering on the cross is forever visible on these symbols.

Of course, as Methodists, we use the cross and the flame to outwardly show our common belief in God’s grace and the Holy Spirit.  The red color itself represents the Pentecost and the Holy Spirit.  In fact, color holds a special relationship itself within the practices of Christianity.  We have purple used during Advent and Lent.  During Advent, the purple represents royalty as Christ is often considered the King of the Jewish people and now all believers.  Purple symbolizes penitence and fasting during Lent.  No discussion of color meaning can end without the reference to white.  White is used in the churches on Christmas Day, on Easter, at weddings, and for communion.  White represents purity, the absence of sin, light, rejoicing, and the Godhead.  (www.EpworthSteeple.org ; accessed March 2010)

The tools we need to share our faith can be very simple, but there are many which we probably never imagined would be important in the growth of Christianity.  I cannot imagine living a life in which my faith must remain hidden from those I pass daily.  I cannot imagine not living in a culture where being identified as a Christian would cost me my freedom or even more, more life.  Today I am blessed to live in a society that does not force me to keep my faith hidden, but I do work in a profession that limits my open testimony.  The freedoms we have as Americans, also protects the freedom of students not to be influenced by a teacher’s personal choice in faith.

Naturally, this standard places a Christian in an awkward position.  As a Christian following the Great Commission:  to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world, we must find methods of testifying without interfering with others free choice.  The answer lies in modeling faith each and every day.  As a teacher, I must model the unconditional love of all my students and of my professional peers.  This is not easy.  The challenges to my personal Christian standards happen each and every day.

What helps are tools.  The traditions of our culture are wrapped around the Christian traditions; and so many times, it seems the Christian factors are lost.  Still the symbols remain a visible message to Christ’s story.  Our responsibility is to make sure the meaning remains the focus.  During these last few days of Lent, are the Christian symbols and traditions still the focus of the season?  What do we need to do?  What other symbols remain part of Lent and Easter?

A few other symbols of Lent are the lamb, the butterfly, the Easter Egg, the Lily, and a few surprising ones:  pretzels, peacocks, the Phoenix, and pomegranate.  The various sources list other Christian symbols and traditions, but right now Lent is the focus and Easter is coming soon.  Which symbols are we using to help tell the story of Jesus’ life, his crucifixion and reincarnation?

The lamb, often a stuffed toy given to our children, represents the Christ as the Paschal Lamb.  Remember that the Jewish people practiced the custom of sacrifice as a covenant with God.  Jesus was God’s sacrifice for us.  (Of course, Jesus also is seen as a Shepherd and we are his sheep.)  Therefore, when giving a stuffed lamb, remember the meaning needs to be shared, too.

One of the most pleasing symbols shared at Easter is the butterfly.  For many, butterflies are a favorite decorating item or accessory with their outfits.  The meaning may not be as evident as the lamb, but the butterfly is a favorite of so many girls and women, especially.  The butterfly’s meaning is really the process of its development, not the gorgeous colors it displays.  Butterflies begin life in a cocoon, which is dull, lifeless in appearance, but the mystery of one’s transformation comes when the butterfly sheds the cocoon.  Again, though, use the butterfly along with an explanation of how being born again in Christ changes one dull, lifeless life into one transformed into something beautiful.

Our message as Christians is one so important that we want to share it with the world.  Getting to know one another is the first step.  Knowing your faith makes it easier to share the value of your faith.  Demonstrating hospitality at the open doors is just one step, demonstrating hospitality constantly transforms your life and other will see the butterfly qualities in you.

The winter is almost over, even if it is hard to believe with the snowfall over the past 24 hours.  Spring is officially here despite what we see.  We have hope that the snow will melt quickly, the flowers will bloom, the trees will leaf out, and the days will warm.  Lent is almost over, too, and soon we will see how Jesus’ resurrection has transformed our lives.  The resurrection gives us hope, too.  We already know that living our faith makes our life peaceful, happier, and joyous.  We are eager to share our story, but we can only wait and anticipate the full glory of God when we, too, will experience the resurrection and life eternal.

Finally, consider one more surprising symbol—the pretzel.  I never expected to find this little piece of information.  According to the references, pretzels were first shaped to look like “hands folded in prayer” and are therefore a symbol of prayer.  Its connection to Lent is the connection to Jesus as he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  Pretzels are a call to prayer and are one more tool we can use in renewing our faith, our commitment to God, and in witnessing to others.

Dear Father in Heaven,

We stop and look around us seeing your story everywhere.  We continue to review and to reflect on how we live our faith, how we witness to others, and how we can grow in our faith.  Help us to recognize the symbols and the traditions as testimony to our faith.  Help us to use the traditions and the symbols of our culture to demonstrate our faith outwardly.  Help us to share our faith with family and friends as well as others in our community, too.             –Amen

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