Friday, December 23, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am
QUESTION: Sometimes I get the feeling that Christmas is so filled with signs and symbols that it is hard to find the real substance of this holiday. How can the church help?
ANSWER: Providing an answer to the question above has to begin with an appreciation of the value of symbols in our lives. In our culture some feel that signs and symbols are helpful but not “real.” We hear people say, “Oh, it’s just a symbol.” But for as long as humans have been on the earth we have employed signs and symbols to convey very real feelings.
We have gestures (signs and symbols) that describe our feelings of love, fidelity, trust and anger. Signs and symbols to us are real because by means of them we convey some of the most essential feelings of our lives. This certainly applies to our religious lives as well. The feeling of reverence and gratitude to God has been signified by the sacrifice of some valued object since our race began, and those feelings were real. In the Christian life, wine, water, fire and oil all are used as signs and symbols that convey deep realities in rituals.
So it is with Christmas. We utilize signs and symbols to demonstrate our great joy in salvation. So for us they are not distractions but the means by which we celebrate essential feelings in a very human way.
Initially, the deep theological reality of the Incarnation was portrayed as one of fulfillment of the promises of the prophets of old. The star indicated divine guidance and intervention into human life. The star of Bethlehem was the signal for the entire world that the new era of the Savior had begun. The angels proclaimed the good news to the shepherds, and through them to the entire world.
The presence of an angel or a star at Christmas speaks loudly of our faith. The appearance of the Magi from the East indicated that this child was destined not only for a small part of humanity but the entire race.
Beyond the theological and biblical aspects, over the centuries Christians have adopted cultural symbols to proclaim unique truths of their own faith. Thus the evergreen has long been a symbol of the everlasting life Christ came to bring us.
The candles and lights adorning our homes need not be a distraction from the meaning of the Nativity but another way of celebrating Christ, the Light of the World who brought light into darkness. Even the colors of Christmas are rooted in Christian life. Red has long been the color designating fire, blood and love. Even at his birth, Jesus reminds us of God’s enormous love that would eventually lead to his sacrifice to bring us eternal life. Green has long been the natural symbol for hope (as in the spring after a winter of worry). What more powerful sign of hope is there than that of the newborn king.
Symbols and signs are very human ways of allowing Christmas joy to permeate our homes and hearts during this holy season.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.