President Hinckley’s home teaching message for April is about symbols. It was prompted by that well-worn question: why don’t Mormons use the symbol of the cross? President Hinckley was asked that question by a Protestant minister, and offered the missionary response: “[F]or us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the Living Christ.”
I am happy that President Hinckley prefaced his statement with the words “for us” because the cross stands for much more than “the dying Christ” to other faithful followers of Jesus. Within the Church, the cross evokes powerful associations and serves as sort of an anti-symbol or symbol of how not to worship, but I think it is important to remember that this version of the cross is our caricature or redefinition.
The Protestant minister (a persistant fellow) then asked: “If you do not use the cross, what is the symbol of your religion?”
President Hinckley’s response surprised me: “I replied that the lives of our people must become the most meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship.” And later in the message:
As His followers, we cannot do a mean or shoddy or ungracious thing without tarnishing His image. Nor can we do a good and gracious and generous act without burnishing more brightly the symbol of Him whose name we have taken upon ourselves. And so our lives must become a meaningful expression, the symbol of our declaration of our testimony of the Living Christ, the Eternal Son of the Living God.
Although I am not certain about this use of the word “symbol,” I see something revealing about the current state of the Church in President Hinckley’s response. We are people who view our service and charitable works as a form of worship. As a people, we have internalized King Benjamin’s wisdom: “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”
One piece of evidence for this ethos is our chapels, which are almost completely devoid of symbolism. Indeed, other than the spires, the only symbolic architectural features in most chapels are the baptismal font and arguably the sacrament table (though this is probably more functional than symbolic). We have thus limited symbolic worship to our ordinances, particularly our temple ordinances. In short, we are a people of action, not contemplation.