Monthly Archives: July 2009

A True Symbol of Faith

A True Symbol of Faith

In most common speech, the words sign and symbol are used as synonyms. Each refers to a word or object that points to or identifies something else. A sharper distinction between sign and symbol is made in modern philosophy of language. A sign is considered to be a word or object that simply refers to or names something else. For example, the word cat is a sign for a feline house pet. Symbols are said to possess a “surplus of meaning,” to do more than merely identify an object or idea. A symbol is described as a word or object that participates in the act of communicating and interpreting meaning, often having several layers of meaning attached by different people encountering the symbol. A cross, for example, can evoke secular ideas of health care and human services, as in its association with the Red Cross. A cross can identify places held sacred and can stir meanings connected with a Christian church. Or, the cross can be an instrument of bearing personal testimony to one’ faith in Jesus Christ.

Much of my study of philosophy dealt with how language functions to communicate the meaning of an experience from one person to another, especially how people can communicate and share understanding of experiences with God. I lean strongly toward the view that symbols are – or can be – powerfully packed with meaning and can draw people into life-changing understanding of ideas and events that have already changed the life of another who employs a symbol.

A wedding ring can be simply a sign. The ring can identify the wearer as “taken,” “not single,” someone’s spouse. But, as I try to indicate briefly in most weddings I perform, the wedding ring can be filled with symbolic power. It is made of gold, conveying the idea that marriage is precious and is to be treasured, as gold is. A ring of solid gold, however, would be too soft and malleable to withstand the stresses of daily wear. It is alloyed with other metals to give it endurance, as a marriage must draw on strengthening resources in order to persevere. A wedding ring is a circle, reminding the wearer that the covenant made between husband and wife is intended to be unending. As the wedding ring is worn through years of marriage, it accumulates deeply personal meaning, forged in the shared joys and challenges experienced by the couple exchanging the rings. It is a symbol that participates in the story of the significance of their life together, and it can provide opportunity for communicating that story to others.

Last Sunday’s lesson in the Sunday School class I attended brought to mind a powerful symbol that has potential for communicating the essence of the gospel of Jesus, but it is too rarely employed by followers of Jesus. The missing symbol is the towel, an object that Jesus actually commanded his followers to use, although most Christians neither use the towel literally nor symbolically as Jesus did. Note the unifying references to Jesus’ love that frame Jesus’ use of the towel in the familiar story of the Last Supper:

      Jesus loved his own who were in the world, and he loved them to the end. {2} … Supper was taking place…. {3} The Father had put everything in Jesus’ control. Jesus knew that. He also knew that he had come from God and was going back to God. {4} So he got up from the table, removed his outer clothes, took a towel, and tied it around his waist. {5} Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel that he had tied around his waist….

      {12} After Jesus had washed their feet and put on his outer clothes, he took his place at the table again. Then he asked his disciples, "Do you understand what I’ve done for you? {13} You call me teacher and Lord, and you’re right because that’s what I am. {14} So if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. {15} I’ve given you an example that you should follow. {16} I can guarantee this truth: Slaves are not superior to their owners, and messengers are not superior to the people who send them. {17} If you understand all of this, you are blessed whenever you follow my example….

      {34} "I’m giving you a new commandment: Love each other in the same way that I have loved you. {35} Everyone will know that you are my disciples because of your love for each other." (John 13: 1b-2a, 3-5, 12-17, 34-35 GWT)

    I wish the idea had come to me while I was serving a church as Pastor. I think I would arrange to present each person I baptized upon their profession of faith in Jesus with a towel, perhaps embroidered with a cross. (Layering symbols, each possessing their own layers of meaning, may enhance the power of the symbols!) I would instruct the believer receiving the towel that it was not intended to be only a keepsake, something to be stored away or kept in pristine condition as a memento of their baptism. I would suggest that the towel be used in ways that Jesus might use it, showing people how much Jesus loves them, as he demonstrated his love for his followers with his towel in the Upper Room. Perhaps they could dry a child’s tears or clean a scraped knee with the towel, as Jesus loved children and drew them to himself. Maybe the towel could be used to dry the dishes after serving a meal to a sorrowing family after a funeral, or served to someone enduring an illness or celebrating a milestone event, as Jesus shares with us in our joys and challenges. Some might use the towel to wipe away sweat as they build homes or churches or access ramps to draw people closer to God’s love. I would encourage followers of Jesus to use the towel in as many ways as they could imagine Jesus using it to show the depth and breadth and length of his love. My hope would be that the towel quickly might be worn threadbare following his example that Jesus told us to follow. As a symbolic incentive, I might offer to replace the towels as often as necessary to keep loving other people the way Jesus loves the recipient.

    Do you carry a symbol of your faith in Jesus? I must admit, I haven’t been the kind of towel bearer I could be. What might happen if followers of Jesus suddenly turned up with towels at the ready, demonstrating love for others wherever possible and telling the story behind the symbol? Some literal and symbolic toweling in Jesus’ name seems to me to be a powerful opportunity for communicating Jesus’ love – just as he told us to do.

    – J. Edward Culpepper