I’ve been writing my defense of Christmas this week, making the case that nearly every evangelical church is an emergent church for one month out of the year. You can read the first two entries below, and you can tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.
At Christmas even the Baptists get their Orthodox groove on, and I love them for it.
I was first introduced to the idea of Icons by Madeleine L’engle, an influence over much of my adult faith experience. Ironically it was not her book on the subject, Penguins and Golden Calves, that first brought them to my attention, but her sublime Crosswicks Journals. She talks about icons as windows through which we focus our sight on the divine, and they can be anything from a formal icon of the Church to a found object, a person, a feature of a landscape. In its broadest definition an icon is something that we allow to remind us of God, or a truth about God, or a truth about how God affects our lives, and to allow it this role on an ongoing basis. They are not graven images, not objects that we esteem as sacred or divine in themselves, but things that represent the sacred and divine to our earthly minds. We strain for the transcendent but see and feel through the physical, and icons provide a bridge between the two. They are not magic; they assist us in our temporal weakness.
And good heavens is Christmas thick with them.
Evergreens, ornaments, stars. Nativity scenes, Advent calendars, wreaths. Presents, Jesse trees, insert-your-own-traditions here. All these things serve to point us towards higher truths, toward aspects of God’s story we have no way to touch and experience otherwise. There are realities of our faith we allow only to exist in our imaginations for most of the year, but at Christmas we feel the freedom to give physical form to those realities, to externalize them and reflect on them outside of ourselves. This is one of the reasons this season is so spiritually approachable for children – the truths of our Gospel cease to be abstract ideas and take on shape and story. Kids understand icons better than we do. Our rational minds want to dismiss them as superstition and our religious fear wants to cast them aside as idols. But this is a very narrow understanding of icons. American evangelicals have been using and endorsing icons every December for decades, they just haven’t been calling them that.
When you guide your family through the weeks of an Advent wreath, you are using an icon. When you put a star on top of your tree and talk about the one the wise men followed, you are using an icon. When you give a thoughtful gift to a loved one, allowing this otherwise meaningless earthly treasure to represent your affection for that person, you are using an icon. When you place a ceramic Jesus in a miniature manger, or hang ornaments on a Jesse tree, or put an evergreen wreath on your door to signify One whose love does not fade or wither, you are using icons. It’s okay, God still likes you. In fact, I think he wishes we invited this practice into our lives more during the other 11 months of the year. It makes the Holy more real to us, and that is always a good thing in whatever form it takes.
And we haven’t even gotten to candles. I guess we’ll cover that Monday.
What objects or traditions do you use at Christmas that would fit this idea of icons? What do they mean to your faith?