Surrounded by Symbols
There really isn’t another time of the year that we surround ourselves with more symbols. Not only does our sanctuary transform during the Advent and Christmas seasons but our houses do as well. We bring in evergreen trees or at least plastic look-a-likes. We adorn them with reminders of our lives and pull out other decorations handed down through the generations. Our power bill increases as we power the lights the thousands of lights that are placed on the outside of our homes. Our desire to celebrate this season creates a new feeling within us and we physically express that by transforming the world around us via tinsel and light bulbs.
Dan Brown is an author who has made a living on symbols. In his three books, the most popular being The De Vinci Code, he writes about symbologist Robert Langdon. Langdon and his eidetic memory are able to interpret the signs around him to uncover the clues around him to find the truth that lies in secret societies and ancient traditions. In Langdon’s newest adventure that is out on DVD he uncovers a plot within the Roman Catholic church which killed the Pope and was going to eradicate Vatican City. Luckily the symbologist was able to save the day looking around and reading the symbols that surrounded him.
Today we are surrounded by symbols but what do they mean? Why do we use them? What do they add to our worship during this holy season? Let’s start here, at the Advent Wreath. This is a tradition that we do every year. We have an evergreen wreath with five candles, three purple, one pink and one white. Each Sunday of Advent we light another candle. All of it has importance though. A wreath is a simple circle and is a sign of life without end. The candles can mean different things. They can mean the four centuries between the last prophet of God, Malachi and the birth of Christ. They can represent Prophecy, John the Baptist, Mary, and the Magi. They can mean expectation, annunciation, proclamation, and fulfillment. The way we describe their meaning is the first Sunday is of hope, the second, peace, third is joy, and the fourth is love. The third one is pink because in more catholic traditions it is said to represent Mary and the joy she has in carrying the Christ child and her magnificat found in Luke 1:46-55. The center candle though always represents the same thing. It is the Christ candle. On Christmas Eve and during the Christmas season it is lit and we celebrate the incarnation, God’s Son coming into this world.
There is some other greenery around here though and there is fruit on it. Above the doors in our sanctuary there are swags. In Colonial Williamsburg swags are placed above doorways during the Christmas season and they are usually adorned with apples and pineapples. Apples were a plenty in Williamsburg and were also seen as reminders of paradise. Pineapples were used as a symbol of hospitality and warmth. They were also seen as a Christian symbol because they represent Christ giving his life for us. Each pineapple plant gives its own life to produce a single fruit and I think you can make the connection there.
Now the large evergreen tree to my right is not called a Christmas tree, it is a Chrismon tree. In the 1940s, in Danville, VA, a tradition was started in the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, which is only 60 miles north of here. Frances Kipps Spencer was looking for a way to cheaply decorate the Christmas trees around Danville. Frances, after years of making her own ornaments for her personal tree, volunteered to decorate the tree in her church. Let me read it in her words, “I realized that Christmas was the birthday of the Christ Child. Suppose it had been the custom in His day and time to decorate birthday cakes for children? How would Mary have decorated a cake for Son Jesus? His name, yes. But what else would please Him? That was the answer; Let the Child be honored, the Person He is! Oh, there were weeks of research before the Chrismons came to my attention. I knew nothing of Christian symbolism. But now I knew what I was doing, what I wanted to say. Since then, the glory of God and His love have been and are the song which we sing through the Chrismon tree. We talk about the Gift that He gave us that day. We say what we can where we are, with the materials which He gives us; we say it to the people around us, in their language; and we try to help others sing a similar song. This is the Chrismon idea.”
The ornaments on the Chrismon tree all represent the one who we celebrate and get ready for during this season. The word Chrismon comes from the Latin phrase that means, monograph of Christ. These are all symbols of Christ and what Christ means for the world. Without explanation, the meaning of these white and gold things in the tree can go unnoticed and unrealized. So instead of spending another year wondering what they mean, I’m going to tell you.
If you look at the Chrismon Tree you will notice that there are only a couple of images used but used in different ways. One of the main images you can see is what looks like a P and an X [hold up Chrismon]. These are Greek letters, Chi, which is the X, and Rho, which is the P looking one. These are the first two letters when you spell Christ in Greek. The legend states that it is the Chi Rho symbol is what Constantine saw in the sky with the cross and the words, “In this sing, conquer.” Also, many people get upset when they see Christmas shortened to Xmas. Yet, X, or Chi, stood for Christ over a thousand years before the English language and before the word Christ or even Christmas came about. Xmas is simply another way of saying ‘Christ’mas.
Under the Chi Rho symbol there sometimes hangs two more Greek letters, the Alpha and the Omega. These may sound a little more familiar because of Revelation 1:8 which says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” These symbols were added to show the divinity of Christ.
You will see as we go along that the Greek letters are really common in Chrismons but you have to remember that in the Jesus’ time, this was the language of the day. The New Testament was first originally written in Greek; yes the first Bible was not the King James Version, that one came almost 1500 years later. Greek was one of the languages Jesus spoke while here on earth. Thus as the church started they would use the language they spoke. Two other Greek letters that come together to form a symbol is Iota, which looks like our capital I and Chi. When you place an I and an X together you get this [hold up Chrismon]. What does this look like though, it looks like a star. But it is really the Iota and the Chi placed together. Now iota is the first letter in the our Lord’s given name, Jesus, in Greek. If you remember Chi is the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. So put Iota and Chi together and you have a shorten version of Jesus Christ. That is what these star looking symbols mean all over the Chrismon tree.
While we are on Greek letters you will probably notice what looks like I H C too [hold up Chrismon]. This is Iota Eta Sigma. The H looking one is actually not an H. It is really like a lowercase n with a tail and an accent mark over it which means that it is an abbreviation. Iota Eta Sigma is the first three letters of Jesus in Greek. The sigma at the end can be written to look like our English letter S or C. Many altars and other sanctuary furniture have these three letters on it. Many people think it means “In His Service” but it actually the ancient symbol of Jesus.
Beyond Greek letters there are also different style crosses. Throughout time there have been different ways to represent the Cross. For the Greeks the cross they used looked a lot like our ‘plus’ symbol. In this Chrismon [Hold up Cross and Chi] you can see it here. Then they place the Chi on top of it and you get Christ on the cross. Another cross is one that looks like a T. This is probably the historical cross that Jesus was crucified on. The way we moved from the T looking cross to the one we have on our altar and around our necks is because of the sign that was placed over Jesus’ head that read “King of the Jews” in three different languages.
There are also symbols of the Trinity on the tree. The Triquetra is the symbol that has three separate and equal arcs. You cannot tell where one side starts and the other ends because the same is true with the God we worship. We believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but where one ends and one begins is a holy mystery. We can see in this Chrismon [hold up the Triquetra and Circle] you have this symbol and a circle. Anytime you see a circle it represents eternity because it is endless and without a beginning or an end. This means that the Trinity is eternal. Two other shapes you will see together and separate up here are a triangle and a trefoil [hold up Chrismon]. Both of these shapes are equal in all aspects and once again they too represent the Trinity.
Some of these look really funny. This one looks like a cross on a ball. But this is the Cross Triumphant Chrismon [hold up Chrismon]. We recognize this cross and the ball underneath it represents the world. This one tells us that our Lord was triumphant over the sins of the world. The ball is divided symbolizing the continents but that are united under the cross and are as one.
Then there is this shape which you may recognize from the back of people’s cars [hold up Chrismon]. This is the Ichthus. It looks like a very simple fish shape and actually Ichthus means fish in Greek. “During the reign of Emperor Nero (54 A.D.- 68 A.D.), and throughout the reign of subsequent evil emperors of the Roman Empire, Christians were commonly persecuted, tortured, and put to death because of their faith in Christ Jesus. Emperor Nero himself personally despised Christians. He blamed them for the great fire of A.D. 64 which burned nearly half of Rome. It was during Nero’s persecutions that both Peter and Paul are thought to have perished. In order to prevent this unnecessary capture and persecution, Christians would often draw an Ichthus in the dirt, mud, sand, or on the walls of caves to let another Christian know that he too was a fellow believer of Christ and that it was safe to talk about their faith without the fear of being turned in.” The Greek letters within the fish is the word Ichthus in Greek. There is also a acrostic or poem using these letters to give the basic message of the gospel, Iota = Jesus, Chi = Christ, Theta = God, Upsilon = Son, Sigma = Savior. Put them together you get the message, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, the basic message of the Gospel itself.
As we surround ourselves with symbols this season, we surround ourselves with God. We constantly remind ourselves that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was sent by the Father to put on flesh, dwell among us and then was the Savior to the world by dying our death and rising again. On the altar today is a way we can tap into that story. The bread and the wine are not only symbols of the body and blood of our Savior but are also a way we can communion, interact, and feel the presence of God in our midst. As you come to the receive the elements today, may you be surrounded by the symbols of the one we worship, and feel what is written in the scriptures, But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
And all God’s people said…Amen.