By George Clifford
In the early 1980s, I served a tour of duty as the chaplain for the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidates School in Quantico. Marine OCS differs from Army, Navy, and Air Force OCS. Unlike the other military services, the Marines do not train officers at OCS. Instead, they screen and evaluate candidates to determine whether each has the ability and potential to become a leader of Marines. Those who successfully complete OCS receive a commission as a Marine Officer and then spend the next six months at The Basic School learning to be officers.
During my tenure at OCS, roughly 50% of all candidates did not receive a commission, either dropping out at their own request or OCS dismissing them as not qualified. For these young men and women, many of whom worked for years to get to OCS, disenrollment was emotionally devastating. The rigid insistence on meeting Marine expectations combined a pervasive boot camp mentality and intense physical program to make OCS an incredibly high stress environment for most candidates.
I soon learned that Isaiah 40:31, “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint,” had great symbolic meaning for Christian candidates. The Marine Corps emblem is the eagle, globe, and anchor. By envisioning him or herself wearing that emblem, the eagle a reminder of God's promise to help, the idea of God's presence with them in the midst of a great personal struggle, unrelenting stress, and unending physical weariness acquired fresh and considerable power. (Obviously, one must avoid conflating the eagle’s two meanings; Christianity and patriotism are not the same and often have competing agendas.)
Feeling stress in 2009 is also easy to understand. Many have lost jobs and others wonder if (and when) their job may disappear. Stock portfolios have steeply declined in value, curtailing or perhaps threatening to curtail, the lifestyles of those dependent upon investment income. The credit crunch has affected the ability of many to buy or sell a house, car, or other item. Each of us could personalize this list with our stressors that might include family problems, a loved one in harm’s way, illness, etc.
Against that backdrop, one line from a recent Sunday’s gospel reading especially struck me. Those who went searching for Jesus when he sought some early morning private time told him when they found him, “Everyone is searching for you.” (Mark 1:37) What those who found Jesus were really saying was that people were distressed, like the Marine officer candidates to whom I ministered, and these people wanted God's help. They had seen or heard of Jesus mediating that help to others – this is what the stories of healing are all about – and now they wanted, needed, God's help for themselves.
Unfortunately, no amount of searching can bring us face to face with the historical Jesus. Thankfully, the Christian tradition has a rich panoply of symbols through which people can still experience God's life-transforming love.
Historically, many Christians have found the bread and wine of Holy Communion powerful mediators of God's grace. This common experience of grace explains why the Church early in its life literalized its interpretation of Jesus’ words of institution, “This is my body … this is my blood.” Transubstantiation, pursuit of the Holy Grail, prayer before the consecrated host, and a wealth of other traditions all grew out of the reverence that Christians attached to symbols through which many experienced God's presence and grace so powerfully mediated. The Church hoped that literalizing the symbols would preserve the symbols’ power and help expand the number of those for whom the symbol mediated God's grace.
Similarly, with the advent of printing and widespread availability of Bibles, many other Christians discovered that the printed words of scripture symbolically mediated God's life-transforming love in an equally powerful manner. They too literalized their experience in an effort to promote its power and to prevent sacrilege. The words of scripture became words that God had spoken. One never set the Bible on the floor or placed another book on top of it. Bequeathing one’s Bible to a member of the next generation conveyed a sense of continuing spirituality between generations.
The saddest example of church architecture I have ever seen is the Dunker Church situated on the Antietam Civil War battlefield in Maryland. My visit to that Church building has remained vivid for over thirty years. What saddened me was neither the damage from cannonballs nor inadvertently poor choice of location. What saddened me was that the church, structurally and in terms of its décor, was distinguishable from some mid-eighteenth century schoolhouses that had benches instead of desks only by the absence of a chalkboard.
Dunker opposition to symbolic expressions of the faith, apart from one book, the Bible, lies at one extreme of the spectrum of Christian reliance on symbols. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, with their unapologetic reliance on multiple symbols – gilded icons, incense, chant, and elaborate, highly stylized ritual – occupy the other extreme of the spectrum of Christian expression.
The Episcopal Church falls broadly between those two extremes: low-church Episcopalians toward the Dunkers and high-church Episcopalians toward the Eastern Orthodox. No one set of practices is normative for us; individuals and congregations gravitate in directions that they find helpful. Yet Episcopalians unite around two truths. Symbols can mediate God's presence and love. But the symbol is only a means for receiving God's grace; identifying the symbol with grace results in idolatry that destroys the symbol’s ability to convey God's grace.
Symbols that fill our Church and spiritual lives include:
• Water in Holy Baptism, fonts at church entrances, and ablutions;
• The taste of bread and wine in Holy Communion;
• Oil used in anointing;
• Metaphors and images incarnated in word, music, paint, fabric, and stone;
• The smell of incense and evergreens;
• Touch in the laying on of hands in prayer and ordination, and physical contact – hugs, shaking hands – when we exchange peace;
• Changes in posture, as we stand, kneel, sit, bow, genuflect, and make the sign of the cross.
Which symbol or symbols resonate most deeply with you at this point in your life? If, like the people in Mark’s gospel, you search for God's powerful presence, then live into the symbols that resonate most deeply with you. When we think on meaningful symbols, incorporate them into life in appropriate ways, and explore their mysteries, then we, like the Jews to whom Isaiah spoke, Jesus’ contemporaries, and the Marine officer candidates to whom I ministered, can experience anew God's loving, life giving presence.