Several holidays have disappeared completely from our calendars since I was a boy. We celebrated Arbor Day, Columbus Day, and Armistice Day as national holidays.
We Americans have become pretty pragmatic about our holidays, putting all on weekends so that we can be both more productive and have more days in a block for recreation.
Symbolism is not very important to us anymore.
We still think the flag is a pretty sacred symbol. We don’t like people burning it! When I was a boy, we had a ceremony at school every morning when the flag was raised. We had to learn how to properly handle the flag, never letting it touch the ground, and folding it properly for overnight storage. It was an honor to be chosen to raise and lower the flag at school.
The other place where symbols used to be very important was at church. Not so much anymore.
Sunday was the Lord’s Day. Some people called it the Christian Sabbath, but we knew that wasn’t exactly right. Sunday was the day Christians had gathered since the first century to celebrate the Sunday resurrection of Jesus. Sunday became the first day of the week. You wore your best clothes—whether they were your best overalls or your best suit or your one dress—you wore your best clothes on Sunday because it was the Lord’s day.
But things have changed! Some calendars even have moved Sunday to the last day of the week. Churches don’t care whether you come Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, just so you come. You can’t tell anyone to wear Sunday clothes because Sunday clothes aren’t any different from Monday clothes. In fact, they are often more casual than Monday clothes.
The same change is happening with what we used to always call “the Lord’s Supper” and other churches called the Eucharist and/or Communion. The symbolism around this moment on Sunday was heavy! First, there was a table in front center of the sanctuary that said “This Do In Remembrance of Me” so that everyone knew why we were gathered.
Unleavened bread was distributed by solemn men—and while you broke a piece off to symbolize the broken body of Jesus, it was quiet so you could remember why you were participating. Cups were distributed after a prayer that reminded you that this was “Jesus’ blood, poured out on the cross for our sins”—you had to say those words somewhere in the prayer!
It’s different now at many churches! No central table anymore and no silence—ever! The bread is cooked into little squares, so there is no need to break it any more. The audience is instructed that the crackers and juice are about to be distributed—absolutely correct, but somehow an uninspiring, pedestrian use of language for such important symbols.
Just like with our holidays, we have communion efficiently managed down to a seven-minute exercise where, hopefully, nobody prays too long or makes any extra comments because that will make the service run over!
I hope you don’t hear just maudlin moaning about Then and Now! This is not a nostalgic longing for the way we used to do things!
Let me ask you this: Do you know why Labor Day is a holiday? Most people will not mention organized Labor and Workers Unions in their answer because the meaning has been forgotten.
Is it possible that the symbolic meaning of Sunday’s celebration of the resurrection by Christians around the world for 2000 years could ever be forgotten? Is it possible that the symbols of bread and wine could lose their meaning? Is it possible that the symbol of immersion baptism could lose its meaning?
I’m not talking about legalism that makes the symbols into Law! I’m saying that symbols have a valuable place in every community. And perhaps we should be extra cautious about messing with symbols that have a biblical genesis and have been recognized by Christians for two millennia.