Last night we went to dinner with some really good friends (hi Diane and Martin if you are visiting the blog for the first time!) They fed us simnel cake which was new to me. Its a symbolic medieval Easter cake that was a treat at the end of the lent fast, with decorations representing the 11 disciples (less Judas).
Now I am not much of a one for symbols (I'm too much of a fan of Zwingli) but the cake set me thinking about them for the second time this week. The first was at the BibleFresh day on Tuesday where there were magnificent stained glass windows.
Before the Bible was available and readable by every Christian there were clearly some folk thinking very hard indeed about how to illustrate the gospel in every way they could. They wanted gospel stories to be something you could see, something that you thought about when you tasted nice cake, something that was illustrated by the way the whole calendar of your day and your year worked. Even, in the case of incense, something you learned about by smell! Stained glass window makers would have got Powerpoint and digital photo frames, and I bet would have given a whole lot more thought to how to use them brilliantly for teaching the gospel than most of us ever do.
Of course the trouble was that people stopped using the symbols as illustrations and reminders of the gospel, and started to consider them a core part of the gospel. In the worst case, the mass ceased to be the reminder of the death of Jesus to save us and was thought to be, in itself, a salvific event that you have to attend to make your salvation secure. When that happens those who control the symbols become a priesthood in a terrible and most unbiblical way. The illustration no longer helps you by telling you about the gospel, but controls you by claiming to be the gospel.
But that doesn't alter the point that a previous age were masterly at trying to get people to think about God by use of everything they had to hand and via every sense. The gospel was intimately attached to every day life. It was visceral - touchable, seeable, tasteable. Which was pretty much how Jesus did it with illustrations and incidents about farming, fishing, flowers, sheep, perfume, money and taxes, bread and wine, employment and commerce, feasts and losing things, seeds and yeast and lamps and trees that don't produce fruit. God entering into the whole of our life-experience and making it all talk about him.
I reckon I need to work harder at illustrations. Simnel cake makes you think - in a very tasty way.