by Rev. Fred A. Schmidt, Jr.
There are two great values in symbols: devotional and educational. Symbols have devotional value because they remind us of the Christian faith; they point beyond themselves to the eternal truths of faith. They help create an atmosphere of worship, and provide food for thought even before the prelude begins. We need only slip into a pew and gaze at the stained glass window of Jesus, and worship has already begun for us. The symbols in the other windows can also serve to focus our thoughts devotionally on God's love and God's presence with us - when we know what they mean.
Equally important is the educational value of symbols. We would all profit by seeking a deeper understanding of the rich symbolism of the Christian faith in order to expand our insight into its central ideas and doctrines. Certainly our understanding of the Trinity is clearer as we refer to the symbols that represent it.
Our church is blessed with a rich symbolism in our stained glass windows. The aim of this series is to enrich your worship at Goodyear Heights United Methodist Church by explaining the meaning of the dominant symbol in each of our windows. Then, as you come into the sanctuary for worship, the message of the symbols will be a means of inspiring and directing your worship of our awesome God.
The Madonna Lily
The first window shows us a favorite and familiar symbol of Christ's resurrection: the Easter lily. This beautiful spring flower usually blooms during the Easter season, and its pure white flower symbolizes the purity of Christ. But the most dramatic reason for the lily being a resurrection symbol is the bulb from which it grows. Before the lily bulb is planted, it is brown, dry and scaly. You wouldn't think there is any life in it. But when it is planted in the ground; soon up comes a bright green shoot - then buds on the tip of the stalk - then it opens into a beautiful white Easter lily! It is a reminder of Christ breaking the bonds of death and bursting out of the grave on Easter morning!
It symbolizes that we, too, will live with Jesus after we die. Paul tells us that after we die of this life, God will give us new, glorified spiritual bodies. In 1 Corinthians 15:43, he says of our body, "It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power." Our present physical body is as unlike this new glorified body as the dry brown lily bulb is unlike the pure white flower that comes from it.
The Easter lily is a beautiful reminder of Christ's resurrection - and ours. And of thte one about whom is said, in Song of Solomon 2:1, "I am the rose of Sharon; the Lily of the valley."
The Draped Cross
This window symbol is one everybody knows; the cross. It is by far the most common Christian symbol. There are more than 400 different kinds and styles of crosses, each carrying the message that Christ died for us, setting us free from our sins and giving us eternal and abundant life.
But this cross has a curious addition; the cloth that wrapped around the cross. Some churches drape a cloth over their cross after the style of the one in our window; purple during lent, black on Good Friday, and white on Easter. The cloth is a burial cloth, or "winding sheet", used by the Jewish people of Jesus' day to wind around the body of someone who had died. They wrapped it around and round the body before placing it in the tomb, making it look kind of like a mummy. They put spices in the sheet to help preserve the body. So the sheet draped around the cross symbolizes Jesus' burial. John describes it in 20:4, saying, "He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around His head." Those were "winding sheets."
It was used for something else at Jesus' death; to help get his body down from the cross. A winding sheet was put around the body, under the arms, then over the crossbar - with people on the ground below holding on to the loose ends. Then they slowly lowered the body to those gathered below.
The drape around the cross reminds us that Jesus really did die there - but we know that's not the end of the story!
The torch moves us further into Jesus' last week. Torches and lanterns are symbols of betrayal, referring to the arrest of Jesus as He was leaving the Garden of Gethsemene. "So Judas, procuring a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and Pharasees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons." (John 18:3) Judas came up to Jesus, and greeted him with a disciple's kiss, pointing out to all that this was the man they should arrest. How that must have hurt Jesus, just as our betrayals do.
Betrayal is an ugly thing - and Jesus being arrasted by an angry mob was an ugly thing, indeed. All the more so that it should be done to Him by someone who had been a disciple for the past three years! The symbol in this window and the next several ones reflect the pain the Master went through for us on His last night, as the time for crucifixion came closer and closer. But He knew that must happen in order to save us - and He loved us enough to endure all that for us.
The palm is a sign of victory, the torch is a sign of betayal; coupled together, they symbolize the "high" and "low" of that week. Often good times and bad times come close together. Something great happens, and we're on top of the world. Then something really bad or sad happens, and we're devastated. But God always gives us what we need to get through the tough times. When you see the torch, let it remind you: God is always there for you when someone lets you down.
Shell and Three Water Drops
The shell is a symbol of baptism that goes back to the earliest years of the church. In the story of Jesus' baptism, nothing is said about a shell, but ancient pictures show Jesus standing knee-deep in the Jordan river, with John the Baptist scooping up water in a shell and pouring it over his head. Of course, we don't know precisely how John baptized our Lord, but the artists in the early church depicted it as being done that way. So the shell became a symbol of baptism from the earliest times.
Note the three drops of water coming from the shell. The number three always reminds us of the Trinity - that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All three aspects of God's nature were present at Jesus' baptism. In Mark 1:10-11, we read: "And when Jesus came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God descending like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, 'Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased'." The three drops of water represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit giving us His grace in baptism in all the ways He can.
Baptism has several different meanings for us: (1) God's forgiveness washes away our sins; (2) God's love is with us always, and we belong to Him; (3) We are a very special part of His church. The shell and the drops of water not only remind us of Jesus' baptism, but of ours, too. When you see it, remember your baptism, and rejoice.
The Christmas Rose
The Christmas rose is a unique symbol. It reminds us of a promise God gave that one day a Messiah would be born. In Isaiah 35:1 (KJV) "The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as a rose." Sometimes the Messiah is referred to as "the Rose of Sharon", from Song of Solomon 2:1.
The idea of a flower has long been associated with the Christ Child, and the Christmas rose is a very interesting flower. It blooms only in the wintertime! Most green plants wither and die when cold and snow come, but not the Christmas rose. Through the summer and fall, it is a leafy green plant, growing close to the ground. When the first frost comes, it stays green, but when it snows, the plant puts out beautiful white flowers, looking like the roses in this window, but much whiter. It blooms all winter, even in the coldest weather. Then it stops blooming when spring arrives.
A legend tells that when Mary and Joseph and the Christ child were fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod, they stayed in a cave overnight. The next day, everywhere they stepped there was a rose blooming. As we sing the Christmas carol: "Lo how a rose e'er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! Of Jesse's lineage coming, as those of old have sung. It came a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter, When half-spent was the night."
The Christmas Rose reminds of Jesus' birth.
The Crown of Thorns
One of the most widely known symbols of our Lord's journey to Calvary is the crown of thorns. It recalls the line of Bernard Clairvaux's great hymn:
"O sacred head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighted down
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, thine only crown."
The crown of thorns, the soldiers plaited and forcefully thrust on Jesus' head was part of the mockery they devised. they had heard Jesus admit His divine kingship before Pilate; they picked up on this affirmation in order to ridicule it. They put a scarlet robe on Him, a crown of thorns on His head, and a reed (or make-believe scepter) in his right hand. Then they ridiculed Him, and with the reed they beat the crown of thorns into His head, afflicting not only pain of body but also pain of soul and mind. (Matthew 27:27-31).
These two symbols remind us of what Jesus went through for us. He didn't have to do that, you know. He could have called on angels to come and save Him; He could have waved His hand and escaped the torture of the cross. But He didn't; He knew the only way for us to know how much He loved us was to go to the cross for us.
It's hard for us to believe that someone could love us that much, but He did - and He does - and He will. So when you see the crown of thorns and other symbols of Holy week, remember His love is so great that nothing can ever separate you from Him.
The Palms and The Cross
The Palm Branches are an easy symbol to interpret. They remind us of Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey. People line the road through the Golden Gate into the city, shouting and singing and waving palm branches they had cut from trees, and hailing Him as Messiah, Lord, and King. (Matthew 21:1-11; John 12:13).
In the Bible, palm trees are often mentioned. They gave fruit (dates), and were incorporated as decorative designs in Solomon's temple. Their large feathery leaves were regarded as tokens of victory and peace. In Revelation 7:9, the throng that gathered around God's throne in worship have palm branches in their hands. Moreover in Jesus' day, when a king or notable leader entered the city, people often greeted him by waving tree branches and a generous outpouring of flowers.
Though the exuberant crowd greeted Jesus as Messiah, in just a few days they would be clamoring for his crucifixion. So the cross placed between the palm branches reminds us of the fickle crowd - and that Jesus came to be a kind of Messiah and King who would die for the sins of His People - for our sins. That was not the kind of triumph the crowds anticipated, but it led to our having a share in Christ's triumph over sin and death. When Christ makes His triumphant entry into our hearts, we share in His victory, and we serve Him as King. May the palm branches and cross remind us of His saving Lordship over our lives.
The Lamp on a Book
This symbol is a combination of two symbols: the lamp stands for knowledge, and the book represents the word of God. Together, speak eloquently of Psalm 119:105; "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path."
Why does a lamp symbolize knowledge? From ancient times, lamps were lit to dispel physical darkness - the gloom of night. The lamp came to represent useful knowledge that burns brightly in our world to dispel mental darkness. But there is still another kind of darkness: spiritual darkness - the gloom of unbelief, hopelessness and separation from God. jesus Christ came to be God's light shining in that darkness, illuminating our life just as a lamp or candle illuminates a pitch black room. That's why Jesus said of Himself, "I am the light of the world." (John 8:12)
Remembering that the book on which the lamp is sitting is the word of God, we recall John's teaching that "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." (John 1:1). Jesus Christ is the Word of God to which the Bible (the written word) bears witness.
When you see these two symbols together, may they remind you that our Lord shines brightly from the pages of Holy Scripture to teach us how to live in this world. With God's Word to guide us, He will help us find our way so we won't get lost. Jesus is the Light of the world and He came to dispel all the darkness of our world.
The Chalice With A Cross Rising
One of the symbols of Jesus' road to the cross is the combination of a chalice and a cross. The chalice or cup in this instance does not refer to the cup of Holy Communion, but to the great agony Jesus had to endure, which Jesus referred to as a "cup".
This cup, with its bitter content of suffering and dying, was mentioned prior to Gethsemene. When the mother of James and John wanted seats of power for her sons in Christ's Kingdom. The Master asked, "Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" (Matthew 20:22) He was talking about the coming crucifixion. That is the cup he prayed about in the Garden: "Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will." (Matthew 26:39) Jesus knew He would make the supreme sacrifice soon.
What do you suppose Jesus saw when He looked into that cup? He saw the cross that was ahead of Him. Shadows of that cross had long ago fallen across Jesus, begining with the manger in His infancy. Knowing that He must bear His own cross to Calvary, our Lord told His followers that they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him. That call still goes out to us today.
The chalice and cross also bring us blessings: forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and eternal life. Because Jesus drained the cup of suffering and bore the cross, our own "cup overflows" (Psalm 23:5) and our crosses are made lighter.
The Latin Cross
The style of cross most common for us is the "Latin Cross" with four arms. The lower one being twice the size of the upper three. Here are several thoughts about those four arms.
A Pastor once held up a cross before a group of children and asked, "What do you see?" One child said, "It is God's plus sing!" Yes! It declares the big plus of God's love added to our lives by Jesus Christ, who loved us to the fullest: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13). So think of the cross as God's plus sign: Its arms pointing in all directions - upper arm upward; lower arm downward; horizontal arms outward.
St. Paul in Ephesians 3:18-19 wrote to his friends, wanting them to "know what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge. . . " Those four directions of God's love are in the cross, God's plus sign. For example: The love of Good looks up - to reach to the holy angels and all who are in heaven. The love of God looks down, to include the depths of the earth and the realm of the dead. The love of God reaches outward, to the farthest horizons of our world - no one is beyond its reach.
To say it another way: The cross reminds us of how wide God's love is, including everyone in the world in every time and place. It tells us of its depth, that Jesus descended even to death for us. It reminds us that He loves us still, from the heights of heaven. The cross is God's plus sign and - says that God's love goes out in all directions to everyone, especially you.
The Inviting Christ and The Alpha and Omega
We are so fortunate to have, as a focal point for our worship, the picture of Jesus inviting us to "Come Unto Me." What a great way to begin worshiping to come into church, look up at it, and think of Jesus saying to us, "Right now, come to me - bring me your sins, bring me your worries, just come to me and let me help you." The window depicts Matthew 11:28, when Jesus invites us to "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." How that can help set our mood for worship!
There are many other things in the windows; vines, fleur-de-lis, and smaller symbols, but the two orange symbols on either side of Jesus carry a special message. They are two Greek letters: on the left "A" is an "alpha"; on the right the one that looks like a horseshoe is an "omega". Those are the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet, corresponding to an "A" and a "Z" in our alphabet.
Their message comes from Revelation 1:8 where God says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come" and from Revelation 22:13; the risen Exalted Christ says, "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and last, the beginning and the end."
The "Alpha" and "Omega" remind us: God is the beginning of all things, the end of all things - and everything in the middle. He is the One "Who was and who is and who is to come!" It also reminds us what Jesus wants to be for us. He wants to be first in our lives - and promises to be with us to the end - and wants to be part of everything in between.
Put it all together - and remember the inviting Christ says, "Come to Me" is the one who is first - and last - and everything in between.