The Power of Symbols
In the most recent issue of “The Observer” Pastor Michael Webster recounts his impressions of wearing a clerical collar every day for a month. The wearing of these collars dates back only to the 19th century (as Webster shares), the creation of a Scottish Presbyterian Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod. Being frugally Scottish he likely wanted to replace the expensive cassock, the clergy attire of the time, with something less pricey, and easier to clean. (Please note that in sharing this perhaps difficult to discern joke, using an unfair stereotype of Scottish character, the author’s heritage is thoroughly Scottish, with a little German and English thrown in – did you know the mother of William Wallace was a Crawford?)
Seriously, though, Webster rightly identifies the types of public reactions I’ve personally experienced in wearing the clerical collar, ranging from confusion to interest to trust to the assumption I might be a dangerous person.
Why wear one, then, particularly in a denomination not especially impressed with clericalism? The simple answer Webster gives resonates with me – it is a means of identification, not my own but in relation to others. It is, in a sense, a uniform, a piece of clothing, a symbol that allows others to know my function, hopefully my availability as a clergy person.
The same could be said of the “robes” clergy often wear to lead worship. Whether the personal choice made is the Geneva Gown, dating from the Reformation era (1500’s) with its emphasis on the academic dimension of clergy preparation and authority, or the Alb, designed to be a representation of the clothing common in Jesus’ day, both types of robes, theologically-speaking, are intended not to draw attention to the clergy person as special or set apart. Rather, as opposed to regular street clothing, the donning of these “vestments” is meant firstly as a reminder to the preacher that he/she is not a motivational speaker expressing opinion but instead, via ordination, a representative of the gospel of Christ, and secondly as a reminder to the folk in the pews of the same fact, to point all present, in our experience of worship, beyond earthly distractions toward matters dealing with nothing short of the grace and love of God known through the gospel. Such garb is worn for symbolic reasons.
Symbols are prevalent in our culture, in our lives. Were I to mention just a few companies, governmental agencies, and sports organizations, would you know automatically what their symbol is? Nike, Apple, The United Nations, NATO, Calgary’s professional hockey team, New York’s professional football team (the NY team that won the Superbowl), Boston’s professional baseball team, the Olymic Games.
What about other symbols? What about religious symbols, or perhaps more palatably, “spiritual” symbols? What about the cross? I still find it striking, somewhat disturbing, that the symbol many of us, Christian or not, so casually wear around our necks is of course the symbol for a tool of execution, horrific execution. Would we wear the image of a tiny electric chair around our necks? How about a hangman’s noose? Yet, for thousands, actually millions, those millions who are fully aware of the cross’s spiritual significance, this symbol of a cross worn on chains, perhaps as earrings, sometimes enacted visually by those whose spiritual practice includes making the sign of the cross, is a symbol of both the tremendous cost and free gift proclaimed in the life and love of God in Jesus Christ.
Lent will soon be upon us. Often Christians pledge to give up something for Lent or to take on something new in their lives. Do you wear a cross already? If not, would you consider wearing one for Lent, a daily symbolic reminder of what Lent is about? A sign to the world as to what your spirituality entails? A personal witness to the power and peace and love of the Almighty, not only for you personally but for all God’s children? Perhaps a different symbol holds more appeal for you? Would you wear it for Lent, for God, for the world to see?
Just a little food for thought. Lent begins Feb. 22nd, Ash Wednesday. Rundle United’s Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper is set for Feb. 21st. Hope you can make it.