When Are Symbols Symbolic?

If Christian symbols are used accidently rather than intentionally when a church is built, are they still Christian symbols? Let me put the question into context. At First Presbyterian, Port Gibson, the chancel chairs have the following design in their back. (I’m looking at the four petal cutout, not the eight petal carved flowers below the cutout.)

This four petal flower is relatively common in church architecture, and my research (years ago) indicates that the four petal flower is used, in contrast to the three petal flower, to suggest the cross of Christ. Experts in the history of church symbols also suspect that there is a close link between the above four petal flower and the budded cross (below).

The theory goes like this: The buds on the budded cross clearly suggest the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, that bud also implies a fourth “petal” that is hidden by the cross itself. The reason this particular four petal flower design (in contrast to a flower with overlapping or pointed petals) became so common in church architecture is its connection with the budded cross.

The budded cross itself has a typically scandalous history for a Christian symbol. It is strongly suspected by those aforementioned church symbol experts that the budded cross originated among the Druids and was taken over as a Christian symbol by the Christians. (The Celtic Christians were quite fond of sanctifying pagan symbols that had potential for teaching Christian doctrine.) The budded cross is a particularly apropos symbol because it is reminiscent of Aaron’s rod that budded (Num. 17).

In Christian hymnody Aaron’s rod that budded is a common type of the Cross of Christ, suggesting, as it does, life from death. Nearly all the famous Old Testament staffs are reinterpreted by Christians as some sort of Cross symbol, so in this sense Aaron’s rod is not unique. But the budded cross, aside from its Trinitarian symbolism, is so richly suggestive of new life (divine life) springing forth from death itself, that it became particularly beloved in Orthodox circles.

But the story of Aaron’s rod is significant for another reason. It is a story of divinely ordained church leadership, and Aaron’s rod is often associated with the clergy, and especially the priesthood in liturgical churches. Bishop’s staves are associated with a number of different “staff” and “shepherd” stories in scripture, not the least of which is the divine authority implied in Aaron’s rod that budded.

In the Presbyterian Church the office of Bishop (ie, Overseer) is associated with the session (the plurality of elders). Historically there was a tradition of the session sitting behind the pastor at the back of the chancel facing the congregation during Sunday morning worship. As I was taught in seminary by folks at the Office of Theology and Worship of the PC(USA), it is no accident that the fancy chancel chairs that were historically reserved for the session frequently have the four petal flower carved in their back (exactly like the chairs at First Pres. pictured above). Those chairs are symbols of the authority of office.

On Sunday, at church, I mentioned the four petal flower in connection with the budded cross and Aaron’s rod. (I happened to be talking about the “new life” and “resurrection” angle of the story, not the “authority of office” angle.) A few people took umbrage with my interpretation, suggesting that I was reading far too much into the chancel furniture. Later that afternoon one church leader huffed at me, “They’re just Dogwood flowers; they don’t mean anything.”

And he may well be correct that when the furniture was chosen and the chancel designed, the good folks who did it were simply choosing something reminiscent of Dogwood flowers. Let’s assume that’s the case for a moment. Does the supposition that they were chosen strictly for aesthetic reasons change the fact that they’re powerful Christian symbols? (Or in this case, potentially powerful Christian symbols, because we’re assuming that at the time, no one knew what they were.) Put another way, do their secular roots mitigate the Christian-ness of their meaning? Can authentic symbols be accidental or do they have to be intentional?

I would argue that accidental symbols are every bit as symbolic as the intentional ones, and often more powerful because of their subtlety and organic character. A church in Bentonville, Arkansas has three gigantic crosses plainly visible from the interstate. They are gaudy (and god-awful for that matter). Barely Christian, they speak far more eloquently to the hubris of that pastor than they do to the mystery of Golgotha. On the other hand, when a Christian symbol becomes so ubiquitous within a worship context that we fail to notice it on a conscious level, it can begin to speak to us on an unconscious level, sinking far deeper into our being and nearer to our nous, than the more explicit symbols and words.

So indeed they may merely be Dogwood flowers. But Jesus died on a mere piece of wood, so Christian history reminds us that “mere” doesn’t necessarily imply insignificant.

p.s. The more amusing part of the story is that at the same time I was talking about four petal flowers, I called switch cane “bamboo.” To a poor benighted northerner like me, it seems a trivial mistake because to my northern eyes, the similarity between switch cane and bamboo is obvious. But what do us poor northerners know? Turns out that switch cane is nothing like bamboo! I was assured of this by a number of good folks. (Although, the Mississippi State website claims that switch cane –or technically, Arundinaria tecta, is one of three native bamboo species in Mississippi. But, for all I know, MSU is populated by poor benighted northerners like me, so don’t tell anyone I mentioned it.)