There is little more endearing image than a mother and newborn infant. This is one reason I believe that the classic nativity scene has such a deep emotional impact on us. Christmas trees and baubles are fine and good, but the “religious” and oh so much more human image of the mother and child is so much more powerful.
While the nativity scene may not be in its “moment of time” steadfastness may not be biblically accurate (shepherds and magi arriving simultaneously, etc). It does encapsulate the “real” Christmas message.
So too does the imagery of my favourite Christmas carol: The Holly and the Ivy. Whole this piece can only be found referenced to 1711 or so (with most extant copies being early 19th Century), its origin is probably much old. Within it there is the evergreen imagery of the pre-Christian winter decoration tradition, but there is buried within it much of Medieval Christian symbolism of Christ and His mother. The Holly representing Jesus and the Ivy – Mary.
The pure white berries of the ivy are a testimony to Mary’s virgin purity. The dark red fruit of the holly Jesus’ blood. The prickles of the holly represent Jesus’ crown and suffering.
These mid-winter greens (the holly and the ivy) also in the depths of the bleakness give hope. The nativity story likewise gives hope to a world caught up in its own figurative “mid-winter’s” bleakness of competition, bitterness and strife.
I have fallen under the banner of many symbols and titles in my life. I became a Christian at a relatively young age in my early teens. My faith was flavoured by the Celtic and Anabaptist traditions and heritages of my background. These traditions were sharpened and refined by the Restoration theology of my education and ministry. And as a growing “seeker” many of the tenets and practices of Pentecostal worship have become part of my relationship with God.
Along this pathway I have had the symbols of the cross and the ichthus as shorthand for my most important defining characteristic of self-identity. I have always found the ichthus fascinating. This simple fish symbol is based on an acronym spelling the Greek word for fish. I – Jesus, X (CH) – Christ, Theta (TH) – God’s, Y (U) – Son, Sigma – Saviour.
I later joined the forces. My job description was Religious Program Specialist. A chapel manager; and secretary, driver, and bodyguard to the chaplain. I to this day am proud of my service to the Chaplains’ Corps and the emblem of my service. This emblem or symbol consists of a compass signifying that life is given direction though religion; a globe symbolising the world-wide scope of the ministry; and an anchor to show that it is part of the naval services. The time in the service taught me much about religious toleration and cooperation. Working with Catholic priests, and Jewish Rabbis gave me a lot of perspective and enriched my Protestant upbringing. This aided me greatly when at a later date I entered into chaplaincy myself.
After the military came university. I still find it hard to believe that I ended up studying at a university that existed more than 500 years before there was “an America.” Here at learned to dig deep into my own beliefs. To question them, and to own them for my own. As a church historian, I saw how the faith itself had been on a journey like my own, but always (again like myself) clung to its key orthodoxies. I have attended several universities at various levels (undergraduate, and post graduate) and each has left its mark on me as well. I can say I am proud to have been associated with each.
Here is where titles come in. I do have academic titles. I have religious honorifics. I have had a military rank and rating.
I use the honorific “Padre” as I found it to be a term not only of respect but of endearment used towards me when in chaplaincy. While the usual title used among the coreligionists of my own tradition and heritage is “brother.” I had for a while liked the use of the title “parson,” as it fit the character and rural location of the first church I ministered in.
Titles are in many ways linguistic symbols. They encapsulate the nature of a position or attainment. But too much should not be read into them. I am a Christian. I am a husband. I am a father. I am a teacher. And I am here to try to do some good with or without symbols and titles.