Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Many people are fascinated by signs and symbols that convey hidden meanings and secret messages. As a Sherlock Holmes fan, I enjoy deciphering such messages (including the meanings of those often-baffling acronyms and abbreviations you see on personalized license plates!).
Throughout history, people have used signs and symbols to convey messages understood by some and hidden to others. An example is the use by first century Christians of the ichthys (fish) symbol to secretly convey their allegiance to Christ. Because many of them were being persecuted, even martyred, they would hold their meetings in catacombs and other secret locations. To guide them to these places of meeting, ichthys symbols were painted on walls to mark the route. Doing so would not arouse suspicion because Christians were not the first to use the ichthys symbol—pagans used it to represent their gods and goddesses.
Despite its association with paganism (more about the “pagan roots” issue below), the fish symbol was widely used by early Christians. This likely was because Jesus often referred to fish in his teaching. On one occasion, he noted he would make his disciples “fishers of men.” On other occasions he performed miracles involving fish—from having Peter pull a coin out of a fish’s mouth, to filling the disciples’ nets with a huge catch of fish, to taking two fish and multiplying them to feed thousands of people. In these and other ways, Jesus used the symbol of fish to tell his story (the gospel), despite the fact (certainly known to him) that pagans were using the fish symbol to tell their own (pagan) stories.
As the incarnate Son of God, who created all that is, Jesus was not limited by the pagan world’s misuse of his good creation. Because he felt perfectly comfortable using their signs and symbols to tell his story, so did the early Christians. For example, (see the picture at left), they turned the word ichthys (ΙΧΘΥΣ in Greek) into an anagram where each letter in the word stood for the first letter of each word in the phrase Iesous Christos, Theou Huios, Soter (Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior).
Sadly, some sincere, though misinformed Christians, work hard to avoid those things they perceive as having “pagan roots.” I know some who avoid clothing with a paisley print, believing it originated in the Zoroastrian pantheistic religion of Persia. Others refuse to wear wedding rings believing they are of pagan origin. Others go so far as to reject Christmas and Easter, believing those celebrations originated in paganism (and that, “once pagan; always pagan”). Holding this misguided viewpoint, they miss out on the deep meaning these central, historic Christian celebrations convey about the goodness and faithfulness of God, revealed to us in the birth and resurrection of Jesus.
God has used signs and symbols throughout history. For example, he gave ancient Israel the Sabbath as a sign to point them to himself as their source of true rest (salvation). God knew they would not fully grasp this meaning (as cogently explained in Hebrews chapters 3 and 4). Many years after giving the Law through Moses (including the Sabbath), God gave a new sign intended for all people—the birth of his incarnate Son, Jesus. Note Luke’s account:
And this will be a sign for you: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:12-14 ESV).
On one occasion I was quoting this verse to explain the importance of celebrating Jesus’ birth to a person burdened down by the superstitious belief that birthday celebrations are pagan. He said this: “This verse in Luke only justifies one celebration of Jesus’ first coming, not celebrations thereafter.” I replied that Jesus’ birth is an event that changed all time, and, therefore, is for all time and all people.
The birth of Jesus is a powerful, enduring sign that encapsulates the entirety of the Christ event: his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension for the salvation of all humankind. Like all signs, our Lord’s birth points backward (reminding us of what our triune God promised and accomplished in the past), and forward (pointing to what God, in Jesus, by the Spirit, will yet accomplish). Luke’s account continues with a part of the gospel story often told during Epiphany, which follows Christmas:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:25-35 ESV).
As Christians, most of us reading this do not have to rely on secret signs and symbols to conceal our places of assembly. That’s a blessing, and our prayers are with those who still face this hardship. But no matter the circumstances, all Christians know that Jesus was raised from the dead, and our heavenly Father is drawing all people to himself in Jesus and through the Spirit. Therefore we all have much to celebrate—and so we shall, during the upcoming Advent and Christmas seasons. I wish you and yours joyous celebrations as we begin a new annual worship cycle in accordance with the historic (western) Christian calendar (for more about that cycle, go to http://update.gci.org/2015/11/annual-worship-cycle-using-the-lectionary/).
Looking forward to our celebrations of Advent and Christmas,
PS: To all who gather this week in the United States (and abroad) to celebrate Thanksgiving, I send my best wishes for a joyous holiday. We truly do have much for which to thank our generous God, including our nation’s spiritual heritage.