Ashes to Ashes – The Death Of Christian Symbolism?

Ash Wednesday came and went without as much as a wave to me. This was brought to my attention on the day after the fact by the opinion pieces that popped up in my iGoogle, which is a quite useless time to start thinking about it.

Or is it? For those who, like me, would have to grudgingly turn themselves over to Google to find out what it actually entails, here’s a quick synopsis:
Ash Wednesday. The day that inaugurates Lent, the 40-day Christian festival of fasting which is also a countdown to Easter. So on this Wednesday, certain Christians have a cross drawn on their forehead with some ash, signifying mourning and repentance. But that explanation just doesn’t do it justice.

G.K. Chesterton once said that if you tell the truth enough times, nobody would believe it. Which seems to me like something Christianity is trying to deal with at the moment. The symbols that have been at the heart of a Christian lifestyle have become so ubiquitous as to be nonsensical.

Take the cross, for example. Put it on a chain. Now hang it around your neck. Take a walk and ask yourself: Does this tell those who see me that I’m a follower of Christ?

I’d have to say no. Our society’s insatiable thirst for some kind of meaningful symbolism has created exactly what it is trying to run from. Symbolic vacuum. Madonna wears crosses. So do Marilyn Manson and Kanye West. By appropriating as many meaningful symbols as possible into our art and culture, we have ripped from them that which we wanted from them in the first place- meaningful impact.

The effect of this is that it is only the unpopular or obscure symbols that have retained some impact. As an outsider you don’t see people wearing a Hijab as anything other than Muslims. The symbol itself has kept its Muslim-ness.

And I believe that this has quite an impact on Christianity as an imagined community. Imagined communities grow from the agar of shared symbols. The stronger the symbols are, the stronger the imagined community. The Goths have that down to a t: clear, evocative shared images and tradition. So if those very things have been eroded from a uniquely Christian position, we find an imagined community with an identity crisis.

In my experience, huge amounts of time are spent on questions of Christian identity. I know I still agonise about it. What does it mean to be a modern, thinking Christian? When do you take a stand on an issue? How do you take any kind of stand? Do you have to?

The thing is, I don’t know. And neither do most of the people that I have the privilege to call friends. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the wrestling is as important as the answer. But these little things we wear and do define the struggle for us. Humanity has always needed symbols to remind them of what it is they actually stand for.

So next year, I’ll mark my diary and maybe even paint a cross on my forehead. I will share in one of the last unpopular symbols that Christians still possess. That cross means that you are weak, that you are only human, that you need help and love as much as the next person.

In that cross lies more than some kind of Christian identity. It binds you to the whole of the human experience.

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