I have always loved religious iconography – statues of religious figures, crucifixes, rosaries, etc. For me, these artistic creations express the very human yearning to connect with the divine. These symbols of religious faith are filled with meaning.
I have a crucifix by my door that I have had since December of 1982. The cross is dark wood and the figure of Christ is brass. It has hung by the front door in each house or apartment where I have lived since it came to me as a Christmas gift so many years ago. It is now hanging still in the entry way of the home that I share with my wife, Pam.
On my trip to England and Scotland with my son, Jon, and his high school Chamber Choir, I purchased crosses and other religious icons wherever we traveled. I was helped in my search by the fact that the choir performed in several churches, mostly cathedrals. One of the things I collected was a rosery made of red beads that I keep by my bed. Oddly, I purchased this at the Anglican cathedral in Lincoln UK. When I asked the woman who was attending the gift shop why they sold roseries in an Anglican church, she told me that they were popular items because people of all faiths liked to give them as gifts. Especially, when a new baby is born. Religious symbols are powerful.
One of my favorite keepsakes from this trip is a beautiful, brilliantly colored, cross necklace that I acquired at Saint Mary’s or the ‘Queens Chapel’ situated on the acreage at Sandringham. These verdant, rolling fields surround a large, ancient mansion known as Sandringham House which is one of the summer homes for the Royal Family. St. Mary’s is a small, but opulent chapel with no space for a gift shop like most of the large cathedrals. However, in the back of the chapel there was a man who had a small supply of mementos for sale. His name was Colin and we fell into a conversation after the Chamber Choir had sung a short concert. While we visited I noticed a beautiful cross neckless and decided immediately to purchase it. Unfortunately, I had spent all of my English pounds and he could not accept US currency. As I turned to go, Colin asked me if I had a church home in the states and I replied that, indeed, I did. He pressed the necklace into my hand and said, “Just donate the price of this cross to your home church and we’ll call it even.” It was such a lovely and surprising gesture. After our return from Europe, I gave the donation and gifted this valued keepsake to my then girlfriend, Pam, now my wife.
I have not just collected Christian iconography. I used to collect images of the Buddha and once, while I was conducting a musical group in a concert located at an ashram in Pennsylvania, I purchased two small Hindu statues. One was of
Sarasvati, a feminine deity with four arms who is depicted with a sitar, a musical instrument, and is considered the goddess associated with wisdom, art, music, knowledge, and writing. The second was Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, who is often venerated as the patron god of intellect, letters, arts, and sciences.
Part of my interest in collecting these various icons over the years is my lifelong interest in comparative religious studies. I want to understand, as best I am able, the intricacies of different belief systems that are not my own.
To be clear, I have never prayed to or with these icons. This is not part of my faith experience. I believe I see these icons as interesting because they were created by and for people who do have faith in their power. These religious artifacts are filled with meaning by the lights of other faiths and this human intention seeking the divine is what I find fascinating.
For my faith walk, I would say the most powerful symbol in worship is the celebration of Holy Communion when we approach the table and symbolically partake of the last supper of Jesus and the celebrant says, “the Body of Christ, broken for you” and “the Blood of Christ, shed for you” For me it is especially meaningful in the Methodist tradition because we walk down the aisle to the front of the church and kneel at a kneeling rail. When I see a people coming forward to receive this gift, I am always struck by this gesture as an outward sign of seeking an interaction with the divine. Human intention strikes again.
For me, I feel as if I am partaking of grace, re-setting my heart, and recalibrating my will. I know I will always fall short of what I know is right. I will fail to do the good that I know to do or I will do things that grieve the heart of God. But at this table, I accept the beautiful and extravagant grace of God through Jesus Christ and I sense that other Christians are accepting that as well. This is my token, my powerful symbol of personal faith.
Like so many things during this pandemic, communion is a challenge. If you have attended worship with FUMC Bentonville online, you know that we end the service, have a brief break, and then have a stand-alone celebration of Holy Communion. This is because our worship service will stay on our social media platforms and may be viewed at a later time, but Holy Communion must be in the moment as it is blessed and consecrated by an ordained elder in our church.
Worshipers who are watching at home, are invited to gather elements they have at home, crackers or bread and any juice they have. As our pastor blesses the elements on the table in the sanctuary, the home elements are blessed. I suspect some of you at home may be uncomfortable taking communion in this way. We all miss coming forward and accepting the offered elements. But I believe the power of Christ’s grace is just as real in your home with the elements you have as it is in our sanctuary. This is because when we take this symbolic meal, remembering the sacrifice of Christ, we are met by the unfailing grace of God.
A pastor friend of mine, Rev. Melanie Tubbs, tells a story that illustrates this idea. Rev. Melanie was asked to visit a 94-year-old man, Mr. Rockford. When Pastor Melanie arrived, Mr. Rockford related a surprising story. He had accepted Christ years earlier when he had come to the aid of a preacher who had become lost on a hike in the woods. Mr. Rockford had guided the pastor out of the woods and had made the preacher a promise to be baptized soon. That had been 74 years ago and for Mr. Rockford, the time was now. Pastor Melanie relates this story in a post called, “Blessing the Biscuits.”
Five minutes later, I sat back down in front of him with an orange Tupperware bowl full of water, a small glass of sweet tea, and two leftover biscuits from breakfast. The elements were prepared, and I began to pray. Sue held his hand as I touched the holy water to his head, and from a plastic orange bowl the three of us were transformed. Mr. Rockford had not received communion in many years, so after blessing the biscuits and the little glass of tea, we shared communion over the wobbly gold TV tray sitting by Mr. Rockford’s chair.
This is when an orange Tupperware bowl becomes a baptismal fount and leftover biscuits and sweet tea become the body and blood. The outward symbol becomes the vessel of unfailing grace and our yearning for the divine is met. The form of the symbols is not important, our intention to meet Christ and receive grace is what brings transformation.
Remember, as much as you desire to meet Christ, Christ is yearning to meet you. Take and eat and be transformed.
Holy God, You are always more ready to hear than we are to pray. Bring us together as believers from around the world as we celebrate the feast of Christ. Help us to love one another as You have loved us. We pray this in All Your Holy Names. Amen.
Grace & Peace
- Ray Wheeler, Ph.D.