A Symbol for Rejoicing – Sermon on Philippians 4 for Gaudete

The different colors we use in the sanctuary throughout the year are a way of telling time. The primary color we use is green. We use green during what we call “ordinary time.” It’s called ordinary time, not because it’s not special, but because the Sundays of ordinary time are counted using ordinal numbers—first, second, third, etc. That’s why on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost we use the color green. We identify that Sunday on the calendar with an ordinal number. The remaining colors all symbolize something as well. White is the color we use for Christological feast days and seasons associated with them, in particular Christmas and Easter, but also other days as well. Red is used for feast days associated with the Holy Spirit, such as Pentecost or Reformation, as well as commemorations of martyrs. Blue is used in Advent because its dark, somber color invites meditation. The same is true for the purple of Lent.

Before the vast majority of people could read, the colors of the liturgical calendar helped them keep time. And we continue to keep time in the church using the colored liturgical calendar. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven,” and so we bedeck the sanctuary—and ourselves, as the case may be—in the appropriate color to the season of the church year. But the changing of the colors themselves point to something beyond merely their individual meanings. Together, the colors and the way we cycle through them, point to God’s choice to become bounded by time and enter into life with us as a limited human being. The colors of the liturgical calendar follow the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus during his time living among us as one like us. And so we are reminded of God’s love for us when we look at the colors, but what’s more we’re reminded of God’s promise that Christ’s life is our life. When we look at the colors of the liturgical calendar, we cannot only see Jesus’ birth, we cannot only see Jesus’ life, we cannot only see Jesus’ death, we cannot only see Jesus’ resurrection—but we must also see our own. And so as we go into the sermon today, I remind you that in all ways, what Jesus did and what Jesus continues to do is done for us, is done for you out of the overflowing love of God. Even the colors we use in the sanctuary for our worship time remind us of God’s love given for us in Jesus.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Christians like their symbols. Perhaps the most iconic symbol that we use as Christians is the cross—which is, to a large degree, a strange symbol. The cross is an ancient implement of torture and death employed by the Romans for their worst criminals. In its day, the cross symbolized the power and might of the Roman empire. Those who dared stand up to the Romans met a with torturous, slow, painful death exposed not only to the elements of privation, but also for everyone to see in ghastly horror.

Yet the cross has become for us a symbol of God’s power and might—his victory over everything that would seek to undo his design for life—particularly in our own lives as those whom he promises to love in Christ Jesus. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthian Christians sometime between the years 53 and 54, “but to us who are being saved it,” that is, the cross, “is the power of God.” And so the most basic, most iconic symbol that we Christians gravitate toward is the cross. For it is a symbol of just indeed how God takes the ways of this world—namely, selfishness, oppression, and death—and turns them around to their own undoing in sacrifice, equity, and life. The cross becomes no longer a symbol of the world’s dominance over our lives, but rather the freedom of God’s love offered to us in Jesus.

And yet the cross isn’t the only symbol we’ve got as Christians. Down through the ages, we have amassed a huge number of symbols. Take the symbols shown on our windows here. We have wings—for angels, and all that angels represent. We have the Luther Rose—which itself is full of symbols, what with its colors, choice of images, and arrangement. We have vines, doves, fiery bushes. We even have a symbol of three circles and triangles that attempts to convey the mystery of the Trinity, the very revealed nature of God’s being, in simple pictures. And these are just the symbols we have on our stained glass windows. There are gads of symbols we use as Christians—and these symbols sometimes, oftentimes have many layers of meaning, depending on how they’re use or who you ask.

A symbol, at the most basic level, is something that represents, or we like to say, points to something else. The symbol itself isn’t the important thing, but rather what the symbol points to. Words, both written and spoken, are themselves symbols. Markings on a page or on a screen aren’t in and of themselves particularly significant. Nor are most of the words we say. There’s nothing inherently “watery” about the utterance “water” that we use it to refer to the chemical marriage between two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom—and yet, both the letters WATER and the sound “water” immediately convey to our minds the image of a colorless, transparent, odorless, tasteless liquid that forms seas, lakes, rivers, clouds, rain and is the basis of almost all life. Those letters and that sound are symbols that point to what water is…They point to a reality that is beyond themselves in order that we can make sense of our lives, that we can order our realities—particularly as we live together in relationship with one another.

Today we dedicate new paraments for our worship space. You see them on the altar and lectern and this banner behind me. Although you might be tempted to call them pink, we in the church call them rose. As many of you may remember from Padre Angel some time ago—Jesus didn’t pink from the grave; he rose from the grave. That’s a good way to remember it. We use the rose paraments on the third week of Advent—called Gaudete—and on the fourth week of Lent—called Lætare. The rose color is itself a symbol for us. It’s a reminder that even in the midst of penitence—Advent and Lent are both considered penitential seasons, times of reflection and preparation for the celebration of Christmas and Easter—even in the midst of penitence, we have cause for rejoicing. Both the words “Gaudete” and “Lætare” mean “rejoice” in Latin, and so on these Sundays, even as we restrain our celebration and praise in anticipation of the Christmas or Easter, we nonetheless remember that we have cause for rejoicing.

And yet as we look at these paraments that are before us today, we see that it’s not just that they’re rose, but we also see on this banner another symbol—the symbol of the pelican. This may be a symbol that is new to you, but it’s one that the church has used for centuries to point to a greater reality about our relationship with God in Jesus. Though many contemporary Christians have never heard of it, the pelican is an important symbol for Christ’s love, sacrifice, power, and life. Even before Jesus the people of the Mediterranean had an incredible respect for the pelican. In fact, the pelican was a legendary figure. In times of famine, mother pelicans were thought to tear at their own breast, draw blood, and feed their chicks off themselves—in order that they survive. It doesn’t take much for us to make the connection between Jesus and the pelican when we think of this.

For God so loved the world that he came down from heaven into the world in human form, shed his own blood to wash, claim, and redeem us in the waters of baptism, and what’s more, Jesus feeds us with his own flesh and blood in the Lord’s Supper so that we may have forgiveness and life. The association with what they’d already seen in the pelican and what God had revealed to them in Jesus was an easy one to make for early Christians.

And so the pelican became, and remains a symbol that points beyond itself for us to understand our relationship with God in Jesus more fundamentally. The pelican is a symbol that reminds us of God’s love, of God’s sacrifice, of God’s power over everything that would stand in the way of full and abundant life with him. As a mother pelican will dive from high, high up in the air over the waters of the bay deep into the water to snatch up fish in her bill, so too does God, in the waters of baptism, dive into the depths of humanity with us—the very uttermost depths—to snatch us from the clutches of everything that would drown us in sorrow, despair, isolation, and death. As a mother will give of her own body and her own blood to sustain her chicks through difficulty, so too does God give his body and blood, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, to strengthen and sustain us in relationship with him and with one another that we might know we are never left alone—that we are forever and ever inalienably united with God and everyone God claims as daughters and sons. The pelican is for us a symbol of this fundamental truth that is revealed and made real for us in Jesus.

And so it is right for us to put the pelican on the rose banner as we remember this day to rejoice at all God has done, continues to do, and promises to do for us. We have reason to rejoice, for God is faithful and never forsakes us—his beloved children he gives his own flesh and blood our lives to keep. Even in the midst of times of difficulty, God raises up for us those who speak words of comfort, who remind us of the fundamental, unshakeable power of love.

We Christians, who bear Christ’s name, we who take Christ’s very self into our bodies—we share in God’s life and share in each other’s lives through an unbreakable bond that may seem simple, may seem weak, may seem crazy—but it’s a bond that God has put together, and what God has put together, no one can put asunder. For God’s weakness is stronger than the world’s strength, and God’s foolishness is wiser than the world’s wisdom. Therefore, we rejoice that God is faithful and we are his children—washed, claimed, fed, and sustained on his life for us in Jesus.

In the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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