Symbols of the Season
A sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For December 6, 2015 Second Sunday of Advent
Advent is about expectation – remembering the expectation of Jesus about to be born calls us to greater expectation of Christ’s return to fulfill history. Mary is at the center of the Advent story, especially as she learns she is to carry a child. Her song in Luke is based on the songs of other expectant mothers in many Hebrew scriptures. This morning listen to her joyous anticipation of God’s activity.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Advent and Christmas are seasons of many symbols. These symbols surround us so frequently in our decorations, on cards, in advertisements, and sometimes even in our clothes. Because of their familiarity, we need to be reminded of the meaning of the symbols so that they remain meaningful.
I am going to start with the Advent Wreath standing here in front of the pulpit. The flame of candles or lamps has stood in many cultures as a symbol of wisdom or understanding. Light has also been used to drive away the unknown fears hidden by darkness, regardless if those fears were named demons, devils, ignorance, or monsters under the bed.
Candles set into a wreath resemble the Swedish practice of the crown of lights, associated with the pre-Christian Viking Yule festivals. During the weeks before and after the winter solstice, the longest day of the winter, it was thought that gnomes and trolls ran wild. No work was allowed during this mid-winter festival. Enough wood was brought in to last the entire holiday. Animals were given a little extra hay. Even the birds were cared for by lashing grain to posts outside homes. Into the bonfires people would throw incense, and while the flames rose, trumpets and flutes played to celebrate the changing of the sun’s course. After the big feast, the remaining food was not cleaned up. It was left out overnight for the little people. If you neglected your nisse — those mischievous elves of the forest — ill fortune would hit your family.
Somewhere about the tenth century the Nordic practices were combined with the Christian winter celebrations, including Christmas.
In Sweden and Norway there can be darkness for many consecutive days before and after the solstice. So the 13th of December, the Day of St. Lucia, the saint of light, was particularly important. In medieval times, a young woman of rich and noble parents, would dress in a white gown with a red sash. She would wear a crown of lingonberry twigs and blazing candles, going from one farm to the next. She carried a torch to light her way and brought baked goods to each house. She returned home by sunrise.
Our circular wreath with candles set inside resembles the crown worn by women remembering St. Lucia. The stories of St. Lucia remind us of Isaiah’s words, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
During this season of Advent, candles are used to remind us that Christ’s light continues to shine. We use four candles, lighting one each Sunday during Advent. Some congregations assign particular meaning to each of these candles (such as hope, peace, joy, love), others use the image of increased light as a symbol of Christ’s presence increasing in the world. Adding one candle per week symbolizes increasing light, increasing hope, increasing assurance as our expectation of Christ’s presence grows. The fifth candle, placed in the center of the wreath, represents Christ, the light of the world.
Many congregations will include a wreath of holly or some kind of evergreen around the base of the candles. Here I notice there are evergreen wreaths on the doors. For many, a circle symbolizes the turning of time, the change of seasons and the possibility of eternity. These understandings of time are reinforced by the different plants that have been used to make the wreaths. Laurel leaves symbolized prosperity and so were given as a symbol of excellence. In Hawaii, wreaths of banana leave are symbols of the eternal life. In Europe, evergreen is a sign of ongoing life; when placed in a circle it was seen as a symbol of the promise of renewed life.
Red velvet bows are a particular addition of the Victorian age. During the last part of the 1800’s, there were numerous advances in cloth making. So cloths like velvet and corduroy, which are labor-intensive when weaving by hand, were suddenly available with new mechanized weaving looms. At the same time, new chemical dyes were discovered. Red is a very difficult dye to make naturally, especially very bright reds. But these new dyes allowed for many bright colors. The combination of new ways of making cloth and new ways of dyeing it shaped what we now think of as a traditional red Christmas bow.
You have three Paraments in your sanctuary – that’s the big word for the cloths that are displayed on the pulpit, lectern, and then used as a bookmark on the bible. These cloths are changed to the appropriate color of the season. Most people thing the color of Christmas is Red and Green. But in the church the color of Christmas is white – representing the light of Christ. But we’re not to Christmas yet: we’re in Advent.
The old tradition is to use purple during Advent. It is the same purple used at Lent, representing the majesty of Christ but also the call to repentance in order to live as Christ’s disciples. Since purple is used at Lent, many places are using blue during Advent. Blue is also a color of majesty – that’s why we call it royal blue. It is also a color of water, thus reminding us of baptism which is an act of repentance. Both blue and purple are colors symbolizing hope, specifically the hope of living within the fullness of God’s reign.
I have to say I am particularly attracted to these large, mostly unadorned evergreen boughs in the chancel. I like the simplicity, the wildness, the naturalness of these boughs.
Long before the Christian era began in Europe, evergreens were regarded as symbols of undying life because they flourish when everything else in nature is withered and dead. Because of this evergreen was used in magical rites to ensure the return of vegetation. Sacred buildings in Europe and Western Asia were decked with evergreen for Winter Solstice rituals.
In pre-Christian Europe, evergreen sprigs, boughs, and sometimes entire trees would be brought indoors as part of winter celebrations, reminders that underneath the blanket of white snow the earth sprung green with life. The Celts of Gaul and Britton brought green plants into their homes during the winter to provide friendly spirits with a refuge and shelter against winter.
It was easy, then, for European Christians to associate the evergreen with protection and eternal life. So when you look at these long boughs consider the possibility of new life even in these dark, grey, cold snowy days.
Within these boughs you have bells. Bells are mentioned in the Old Testament as being used on the robes of the high priest. The people would have known, by the noise of the bells, that the high priest was offering sacrifices for their sins.
Bells were also rung at pagan winter celebrations. It was thought that evil spirits could be driven out by loud noises, and bells often accompanied singing and shouting. During the Middle Ages Church bells were also used to announce church services and Midnight Mass. On Christmas Eve, bells were rung with increasing frequency until midnight, supposedly to warn the devil of the approaching birth of the Christ Child.
You have red and white poinsettias, a particular plant of the western hemisphere. There is another kind of poinsettia that grows in the Middle East and Syria. In the bible that plant is referred to as the Rose of Sharon: the name “Sharon” is derived from the Hebrew word for a plentiful pasture; “Rose” is a variation of the name Ruth, the devoted daughter-in-law who started a line of Israelite Kings.
The poinsettias you have here are commonly found in Mexico. There is a Mexican legend describing the holy family fleeing from Bethlehem to Egypt. While cradling her newborn, Mary commented on how barren the desert plains looked, with almost no variation of color. A dark green bush overheard Mary’s comment, and instantly changed its leaves to a brilliant shade of red. At first this miracle comforted Mary, but when she realized that the hue of red was the same as blood, she realized that great demands would be placed on her child.
And the Christmas Tree. As I have already said: in much of pre-Christian Europe there were traditions of bringing evergreen into the home during the winter. So medieval Christians were probably following some very ancient cultural practices when they brought evergreen trees into their public spaces.
What Christians did different was to make it a central part of telling the stories of the bible. In that season of Christmas – the 12 days from Christmas Eve through Epiphany, many communities would have pageants were the stories of the bible were performed like plays. Those pageants began with the Story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise. Since fruit trees were barren in December, an evergreen would be used for the Tree of Knowledge. Apples and other fruits and nuts were hung from the branches of the tree; from these, Adam and Eve would eat the fruit of the tree of Knowledge.
In fact there has been widespread practices of using foods to decorate Christmas trees. Grapes symbolize friendship and remind us of the fellowship of communion wine. The pre-Christian Gauls and Celts saw the hickory as a sacred tree: acorns, the tiny seeds from which mighty oaks grow, were symbols of rebirth, a symbol early Christians used to represent being born again in Christ. Walnuts were frequently used in wintertime games. When the shell was carefully opened, it would be used in many ways. A candle might have been set in it to float in a pan of water. Candies and sweets would be served in the shell, and tiny presents could be hidden in the shell resealed with wax. Walnuts, or their glass counterparts, were hung on trees as part of the festivities.
The season for ripe citrus arrives just before the Christmas holidays, starting sometime in early November. Without modern preservation techniques, the time for these fruit to remain fresh for eating is remarkably short. In Medieval Europe, where travel in late fall and early winter is unpredictable, transporting produce from the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe was very difficult, making oranges, lemons, and limes are rare winter treat. It is no surprise that Santa Claus left oranges in the toes of stockings of those who were very good, or that orange slices were among the first glass ornaments produced.
In Germany, the gift of carrots was thought to bring a bride good luck in the kitchen – and so they were sometimes hung of the Christmas tree. Many German families thought of the pickle as a symbol of luck and prosperity. In some families, the last ornament to be hung on the Christmas tree is a pickle. Hidden by the parents, children gleefully examine the tree looking for the pickle; whoever finds it receives a special gift.
So look at the glass – and now plastic – ornaments on your tree and imagine what food they are resembling – and consider how that is related to the story of the Garden of Eden.
In some other areas, communion wafers were also hung in the tree. Special Christmas wafers were shaped like stars, angels, hearts, flowers and bells. Eventually the communion wafers were replaced by cookies and sweets, leading to practices of hanging ornate baked goods. Again, as you look at some of your ornaments you’ll see the difference of fruits and baked goods represented.
It is the Reformed Christians of the 17th and 18th Century that emphasize the evergreen as a symbol of Christian life. There are several places where the bible refers to the cross as a tree. Many legends grew about pine being the wood of the cross, with the evergreen needles representing both Jesus’ suffering on the cross and Christ’s resurrection. It is these pietistic Christians who have given us some of the more enduring symbolic understandings of the Christmas tree. Lights on the tree, originally candles, were seen as representations of the canopy of stars from where angelic choirs sung to announce Christ’s birth. The combination of faith and technology have led us to all kinds of colored, blinking lights that may sing a variety of songs to remind of us the beauty of the singing angels.
These are certainly not the only symbols of Christmas that we can decode – nor is anything I said the exclusive meaning of these symbols. That is part of the power of symbols: they can mean many things to many people. The important part is that we are intentional in what they mean to us – especially when we use symbols to communicate our faith. And I hope this morning’s reflection will help you in being more deliberate about the ways you share the stories of your faith, especially in the season of preparing for Christ’s advent.