Sunday, March 26, 2006
Fishes and Crosses
My students were excited. The orders for the new school shirts had arrived and were stuffed into their lockers, waiting for them to take home. The logos weren’t anything new, just the shirt style. These were long-sleeved shirts whereas the ones they received at the beginning of the school term were short sleeved. Also, some parents had ordered prized sweatshirts. What had my students ecstatic was that I had ordered a sweatshirt for myself.
“Now you don’t have to wear a uniform!” they shouted. “Yeah! Are uniforms all you have at your house?” Deaconess Pam Nielsen should have been a fly on the classroom wall that day. It was she who years ago patiently explained to me the value of wearing “deaconess garb,” and I daily appreciate it. I had flippantly wanted to remain encased in denim. During her student days, another friend of mine had embroidered “deaconess blues” across the seat of her jeans. That was more my style. When a pastor friend volunteered to have a denim chasuble manufactured to co-ordinate with a denim deaconess uniform, I thought I had it “made in the shade!” That was pure me. But the deaconess uniform reminds me that I am not my own. Rather, I am bound to Another in Baptism, and according to the vows of the diaconate. It is that office which is to be brought forward, and not I. The garb serves to hide “Em,” and to bring Christ who serves His people through me to the forefront (Jn 10:30).
The most distinctive feature about the deaconess uniform is the insignia of the Concordia Deaconess Conference to which I belong. It is worn in the left shoulder; gold budded cross on a field of navy blue. During my field work I served in a Roman Catholic hospital in Chicago. There the nuns were a bit perturbed trying to ascertain which order I belonged to. I’d point out the evident irony: They wore no habit and had no husbands; I wore a habit and was allowed to keep my husband. My internship was served at a large hospital in Cook County. The hospital administrator was a secularist who “didn’t need to see or be reminded about no stinkin’ Jesus,” and my supervisor was one who constantly advised me to “Stop talking Baptism to patients. You Lutherans are just plain silly about how you go on about Baptism- as if it really does anything!” I made certain to wear my uniform every day I worked in both of those hospitals for two reasons: 1. The insignia is large enough to make sure every patient could easily see it. In an age when the average spiritual care department pushes Oprah, Dr. Phil, and the Ministry of Silence, my uniform immediately announced that I wasn’t making merely a social call when I entered a room; 2. Visible reminders point to heavenly realities. This is true for the design of the Deaconess Cross.
The Deaconess Cross reaches outward in budded branches. While the French fleur-d-lis has long been a symbol of the Trinity because of its triangular shape, the lily itself has been an icon of the resurrection. Paul reminds us in 1Cor. 15 that if it were not for Christ’s resurrection, the church would have nothing about which to boast or preach. Christ’s resurrection is the Good News all mankind is waiting to hear. Thus, the petal ends of the Deaconess Cross, reaching outward as they do, remind us also that Deaconesses serve all people, in every place.
Four fish are joined in the center to form the four arms of the Deaconess Cross. The fish is an ancient Christian symbol. During the early period of Christianity, signs were used to identify another Christian. Thus, one person meeting another would draw the first arc of the fish. It was up to the second person to draw the other. By this means two people would recognize each other as Christians. In his work, De Baptismo, Tertullian writes, “But we, little fishes, after the example of our Icqus (Icthus, fish) Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water.” Thus the Deaconess Cross is also a reminder of Baptism. For it is by Baptism Christ joins us to Himself, making of us His “little fishes” who are meant by “daily contrition and repentance… emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” We are meant to remain in Christ, grafted to Him (Jn 15.5). He says it clearly in Jn 8:31, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”
So, I told my little fishes that I didn’t have only navy blue uniforms at my house. Sometimes I even wear denim around the place. And sometimes when I go shopping I even look at red dresses.