Taylor: Disposing of sacred symbols

Symbols are just that: They simply represent the real thing

A woman wrote Annie’s Mailbox (the continuation of the late Anne Lander’s advice column) asking, “Can you tell me how to dispose of an old Bible?”

It wasn’t a particularly valuable Bible, the writer continued: “It doesn’t include a family history or anything like that. It is simply worn out… If we aren’t supposed to put our country’s flag in the garbage, then why would we do it to a Bible?”

That question, I admit, had never occurred to me. The bookshelf behind me holds 19 versions of Bibles; I just counted them. When their shelf-life expires, I expect to toss them in the recycling bin.

But Kathy Mitchell and Marcy Sugar, Landers’ former editors, replied, “There is no single answer for the proper disposal of a Christian Bible. The general consensus is to wrap it and bury it with respect…”

They also suggested, “You can also ask your minister if you can bring the Bible to your church for appropriate disposal.”

What would constitute “appropriate disposal”? A formal funeral? With pall-bearers and honour guard?

Probably not putting it through a shredder.

The problem is confusing the symbol with what it stands for. We treat symbols with respect because they point us to what we consider sacred, not because they themselves are sacred.

Disposing of them is not the same as treating them with disrespect. We show disrespect when we deliberately burn flags, burn Bibles or Qur’ans (or science textbooks), as public protests. That too acknowledges their roles as symbols—in this case, of something disliked or opposed.

Years ago, when A.C. Forrest was the editor of The United Church Observer, a reader asked what he should do with leftover communion wine—in our tradition, typically Welch’s grape juice.

Forrest suggested pouring it into a urinal. “Flush afterwards,” he added, “so that no one suspects you of having a bladder problem.”

Forrest had a habit of being controversial. But few comments evoked such a storm of protest from church members. That “wine” had been consecrated, they fumed. It now belonged to God. It should not be disposed of irreverently.

Traditionally, leftover wine must be consumed. During the World Council of Churches’ meeting in Vancouver, in 1983, organizers expected 5,000 to attend a Eucharist. Only 3,500 turned up—a remarkable attendance, but it still left 1,500 servings of wine unconsumed.

After the service, organizers pleaded with departing worshippers to come to the altar and have some more wine. It couldn’t just be thrown out.

My last memory of that service is of one liturgist standing before a long line of still-filled wine cups, swaying slightly as he methodically emptied one after another.

From where, no doubt,  the wine would pass into a urinal anyway.

We need to remember that the wine is not the blood of Christ; the printed book is not the word of God; the flag is not the country. I’ve seen flags that have frayed to half their original size. Their colours have faded. It seems to me they have done their duty, long ago, and might welcome the chance to decompose in a landfill site.

That’s not disrespect for the symbol. Once a symbol has done its job, it has no further value in itself. As long as what it points to remains.