Last Sunday (April 2), I got the chance to spend most of the worship hour with our Sunday School kids. Misty asked me a while back if I would come and talk to them about the symbols in Christianity, with particular emphasis on Palm Sunday and Easter.
Palm Sunday is the special worship day when we remember how the people of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus by waving palms and crying out, “Hosanna!” Both of those things, the palms and the word they used were understood as ways of welcoming a “special someone” with joy. That special person was someone they believed to have been sent by God to lead the Hebrew people – in this case, Jesus. They were, in effect, saying, “Here comes the guy who was sent by God to make things better!!”
Adulation can be fleeting, though. Less than a week later, many among those same crowds would be calling out to Pontius Pilate, the Roman military governor, to crucify Jesus. It seems that they had expectations of Jesus that hadn’t been lived up to! Sometimes we find ourselves in similar situations – welcoming someone or something based on our own assumptions, only to have reality turn out to be very different.
One of the things that’s important to remember about symbols is that they stand for something else. When we see the U.S. flag, we’re not really looking at a map of our country … or a satellite photo … we’re looking at a symbol of our nation and all that is wrapped up in our own perceptions. For example, the Stars and Stripes is a symbol of liberty and freedom. Symbols are different, however, from actions inspired by those symbols. An action that reminds us of something else is called ‘symbolic.’ Using the previous flag analogy, the flag makes us think of liberty and freedom; a soldier willingly risking his or her life to protect our liberty and freedom is “symbolic” and incorporates the feelings we have for a symbol with the recognition that those things that the symbol calls to mind must be proclaimed through action, as well.
The ultimate, overarching symbol for Lent (the period leading up to Easter) is, of course, the cross. In the Protestant tradition (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, etc …) the cross is always shown without a figure on it – keeping our focus on the Risen Christ rather than the crucified Christ. It is a symbol of the cruelty that structures of power and influence can inflict on those who date to be different; it is a symbol of the depth of love that God feels for us, and how that love allowed Jesus to willingly give up his life so we could know about that love 2000 years later; it is also a symbol of God’s triumph over not only the forces of worldly oppression, but also over death itself.
The cross is the symbol – but that symbol must be proclaimed through action, as well. And that’s where we come in. I often urge people to live like Christ – becoming his hands and feet alive in love in our world. In reality what I’m saying is that everything we do should be symbolic of Jesus Christ and the love he demonstrated for all he met. Nothing speaks as loudly as a Christian believer loving like Jesus!
We are the people of Easter! We are also the people of the cross. Let’s act like it.