Posted: Dec. 26, 2014
One of the most obvious symbols of Christianity is the wooden cross.
Posted: Dec. 26, 2014
Yesterday, Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus. Over the centuries, Christian symbology has adopted flowers or plants to represent key Christian ideas. Because Christianity is omnipresent in Western civilization, there is little surprise that the plants and flowers symbolizing Christian beliefs have inspired the larger community.
More widely, the ubiquitous faith has enriched all of our lives, religious and secularist alike; the deep feelings of life's inflection points are marked with appropriate and well-understood flowers, many adopted from Christianity.
This week, a look at a few plants and how they are used.
Flowers and Vines
Grapes are among the strongest Christian symbols, as they represent the blood of Jesus; moreover, vineyards come to represent the mission field. In that sense, grapes come to also represent good works, while vines reflect the words of Jesus "I am the vine, ye are the branches," (John 15:5). And recall that Jesus' first miracle was multiplying grapes and bread at the request of Mary.
Holly is sometimes considered the source of Jesus' "crown of thorns". But the actual plant identity is lost to history.
Olives are widely understood to represent peace and are a symbol of anointing.
Palms are used in the Bible as a stand-in for victory; when Jesus entered Jerusalem, according to John 12:13, the people "Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him."
Ferns come to indicate the humility of solitude because they are often concealed deep in the forest. And of course the fig tree is central to a powerful teaching in three Gospels (Matthew 24:32-35). Actually, figs are posited by some as the true fruit eaten by Eve; offering a fig leaf is understood even now as extending an excuse.
The passion vine is strongly associated with Jesus. Dark inner flower markings are said to recall Christ's passion; this singular meaning is emblematic in itself, really. The circles around the inner cross are variously interpreted, relating mostly to the circular nature of life; and the outward radiating "spokes" indicate hope, or they may represent the whips used on Jesus.
There is more here: 10 petals represent 10 faithful apostles; three stigmas recall three nails; five anthers, the five wounds in Jesus' body; blue and white colors represent Purit and Heaven.
Other plants have fascinating Biblical references, too. The mustard seed, mentioned by Luke and Matthew, is used by Jesus as emblematic of heaven: a very small seed, properly nourished, becomes Heaven itself. And the dogwood ? not the New World tree ? is of small stature as penance for having been used to fashion the cross.
These symbols form simple cipher that enriches our shared cultural heritage by recalling a strong, often emotional undercurrent. For example, the Christian cross is a simple thing made from two pieces of wood, particularly arranged. What's so special about this arrangement? Nothing, really, if you live on Mars. But if you live on Earth, you know that this figure has come to define Western civilization in many ways.
Symbols are broadly cohesive cultural assumptions. They are cultural glue and cultural shorthand at the same time. Each year, one hears the lament that the "spirit of Christmas" lasts but a few short weeks. This phrase is packed with cultural reference. It is a simple way to say something very complicated.
More than a stand in, symbols become multipliers, adding richness and texture to our broader life experience. Symbols allow us all to approach an idea with a basic sensibility of shared social knowledge.
Whatever your faith, we can all thank our Christian brothers and sisters for the spirit of familiarity, conviviality and goodwill fostered by this deeply meaningful season.
I thank all of my readers, of every faith and of no faith, and wish you all a happy holiday season.
Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture since 1979 and is president of MSA Design Inc. Contact him by email: ms@ msadesign.com or follow him on Twitter, @msDesign. His website is www.msadesign.com. Listen to WGCU for his on-air sponsorship. Reprints are available for HOA readers of topics of special interest to larger communities.