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What’s in a Symbol?

What do these symbols mean to you? What do they do within you?

Hangings, colors and seasons?  What’s the big deal? 

There’s a term used in liturgical Church circles for the season after Pentecost.  It’s called Ordinary Time. 

I remember when I was young and how bored I became looking at the same old green altar hangings from the end of May through November.   I was taught that the color green symbolized “a time of growth” which in agrarian terms naturally occurred in the late spring and summer months.   Years later, when working at Church of Reconciliation in San Antonio with the late Rev. Sam Todd, we reflected on how the colors change and that several are used for two different seasons, such as purple for Advent and Lent and green for Epiphany and Ordinary Time.  We wanted to focus on a color that represented each season as to increase the focus of one season-one color.   

We added the traditional Sarum (from Salisbury, Anglican) Blue (Mary) color for Advent and decided to use the Red for Pentecost and the season of Ordinary Time following throughout the rest of the Church Year.   So why did we do this?

It all comes down to symbol.   We use symbols so much we don’t ever realize we do it.  When we look at keys, we think “car” or “door” or “opening” for example.   In spiritual circles, symbol is a window through which we are carried to God.   We have candles on the altar.  But why?  To represent the Light.  But have you ever looked at the flame of a single altar candle to the point that you’re meditating on that light and that the process empties you of all thought so that your mind, heart and spirit are open to God?   Symbols are not just thoughtful meanings, they are a means of transporting us out of this world into the next and then God appearing to us in this world in the here and now. 

So why Red?  Red surely symbolizes the “tongues of fire” experience of the disciples and those around them on the first Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2.   Red is a color that is charged with energy.  Fire is a transforming agent, purifying that which needs to be purified, separating the slag from the precious metal, melting away the sin that attaches to our minds, hearts, and wills.   I recall working in a die casting factory with 2200 degree molten aluminum being poured into my machine reservoir.  The impurities of the metal floated off on the top attaching in a crusty form around the reservoir edges while the silvery colored metal with shades of red and flames leaping out of it gleamed in its beauty.  I never tired of looking at the purified metal that was refined by fire. 

When I was younger, I compared the school year with the Church Year.  Great attention was placed on Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost (six months) because this is when Jesus was active in the world (bear with me—Jesus is still active in the world).  So after Pentecost which corresponded with school being out, the lazy hazy crazy days of summer all seemed to run together in ordinary time, as did the Church Year because Jesus had been raised, ascended, the disciples became apostles when receiving the Holy Spirit and then all is right with the world until next Advent.   Ordinary Time, the time after Pentecost was like a time when we could slough off a bit and relax.   Little did I know, that this cultural aberration of “school’s out—church is out,” couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Ordinary Time isn’t “ordinary” at all.  Why?  Because it’s our turn. God is just getting started with us. Ordinary Time is really “Extraordinary Time.”  Why?  Because this is the time when God and Jesus incarnates in us (becomes “enfleshed” all the way down into our cell tissue, in every breath and in every heartbeat) in the Holy Spirit.  Ordinary Time becomes extraordinary because this is the period where the disciples (students), come apostles (meaning “sent”) to learn how to be Spirit led from within. Pentecost means the you and I become the Temple of God on earth.   We may “go to Church” to gather in the Sanctuary (someday we’ll return to the sanctuary) but we are the sanctuary within whom the Spirit lives.  So Ordinary Time is when we are learning how to become Spirit led and there’s no “school year” because it’s a 365 day a year deal.

This is why I leave the red hangings on the altar during Ordinary Time—the time after Pentecost, to remind us that it’s time to “get the Red out.”   Green is a “cool” color.  Red is a “warm” to hot color.  When the Spirit penetrates us, we are changed and changing, there’s a reaction going on inside.  Things within us our getting moved around.  Priorities are changing and our lives in the daily begin to change too.   This is God’s intention, and Jesus’ and the Holy Spirit’s that we are no longer couch potatoes, but that there’s a Divine Light and Fire in us that is dancing around within us waiting to get out there in the world at the same time.  For some reason, the color green just doesn’t symbolize this.

We might say that we are dying to let the Red expand in us for as St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” The miracle in all of this is that “resting” in God doesn’t lead to a nap. Resting in God awakens us and empowers us because “Wild Red” is going to be working through us. “Wild Red” is the nickname for the Holy Spirit in the late Wes Seeliger’s great book, Western Theology. I used that text for teaching spiritual formation with youth in Episcopal Schools when I was a chaplain. It’s a fun read while getting the point across that the Holy Trinity is anything but tame.

May your day be full of Red,

Fr. Mark