Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bread, Wine, Water, Ashes: Symbols

Nearly a week later, and I don't know that I've really put a lot of additional thought into up until now, aside from the thoughts I'd already had. First, something can never be "just a symbol." A symbol is "something visible that by association or convention represents something else that is invisible" (here). When I lived in South Carolina I was discussing baptism with someone who identified as Thoroughly Reformed and she said, "It's just a symbol!" By virtue of its being a symbol, it has something attached to it, whether it's profession of faith or cleansing from all sin and being sealed by the Holy Spirit forever. Christianity is full of tangible symbols, things that represent things to us. These symbols aren't limited by their actual matter or the different things they symbolize.

Bread and wine are symbols, at least for Episcopalians for us. They symbolize a lot of things though. They're the body and blood of Christ. They're elements of a meal that we share together. They're gifts from the community, the community offering itself to God through its resources. They're signs of God's provision for us. Since we relate to God in them, it's important to me (and other) that they be real. Real bread that tastes and looks and feels like bread. Real wine, preferably good wine, that smells like wine and tastes like wine and doesn't make you gag afterward. If you're not in a wine tradition, real, good, grape juice, not stuff that's watered down. It's hard to envision the Eucharist as a feast if you're operating on meager provisions (although it certainly is by merely being God's gift to us, but we need to convey that through symbols we've been given).

These are symbols of grace, and need to be abundant, not cheap or skimpy. That's why I give people large pieces of bread and give them the option to do more than lick the rim of a chalice. God's grace to us is abundant, and there is enough for everyone, and enough for them to not have tiny portions. And that needs to be take into account when planning provisions for worship. It's hard to taste and see that the Lord is good if you can't taste the bread. And yes, you might have to actually chew what you're handed, but that's a sensory experience, God's grace being something that we can experience through a symbol. Wafers might be tidier and more easily managed, but is God tidy or grace easily managed?

Water is a symbol, as discussed briefly above. Most of the time it's a symbol of baptism and forgiveness of sin, sometimes it's mixed with wine, and the comingled liquids symbolize Christ's divinity and humanity. I think water, therefore needs to be abundant, too. I don't like candy-dish fonts, but they can be redeemed somewhat if they're full of water, not just a tiny bit down in the bottom. Fonts are both practical and symbolic; they are the entry to the church and are often there. The font in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd is a great big stone font. Inside it is a ceramic bowl to keep from damaging the stonework. Lately, however, the bowl had had barely water in it. It hasn't been empty, but it hasn't been brimming in abundance. I think that these symbols mean something. A tiny amount of water (especially when you have usually 20+ people remembering their baptism at 3-4 services a day) doesn't go far, or look like it goes far. Abundance of grace...and symbols thereof.

Those are very familiar symbols that we encounter very, very regularly. We have lots of other symbols, but since I was passing them out yesterday, ashes as a symbol come to mind, and this might be a rant, but I don't think so. I don't want an ash smudge, and I don't give an ash smudge. At St. Paul's I used the ball of my thumb after a few people because the symbol was bigger and clearer. Ashes are symbols of our mortality, and as we start Lent they are symbols of our sinfulness. They're to remind us in humility that we are in constant need of (conscious) reconversion, which we focus on during Lent. I made crosses big, bold, and clear. A smudge on the forehead makes it look like you bumped your head at the Olympics (a la English video clip of VP Biden's ash smudge) or that you're just dirty. A dark cross is clearly a marker of Ash Wednesday.

I think symbols need to be clear and acknowledged. If a symbol is downplayed, its weight may not be fully realized. Ashes as a symbol are about mortality and sinfulness, and they are a kind of greeting sometimes. Seeing them on one's own forehead isn't the only way they get seen. Every time I saw someone on the subway or elsewhere last Wednesday, I was reminded that I had ashes on my head and called to mind, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return." And I didn't always call that to mind if I wasn't sure if someone had ashes on their head or their hair was doing something funny.

So, in summary
Yes:

No:

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