The Significance of the Presbyterian Symbol of the Burning Bush.
How and when did Presbyterians adopt the symbol of the burning bush as their central emblem?
Most other mainline Protestant Churches would have a some kind of an empty cross as part of their emblem. How did it come to be that Presbyterians adopted the symbol of the Burning Bush as it’s central emblem and not an empty cross?
Firstly, as most of us would be aware, the symbol of the burning bush is a Biblical one that takes us back to the Book of Exodus and the story of Moses. Moses had fled his life of luxury in Egypt after he had killed an Egyptian slave driver, to become a herder of sheep in the wilderness. According to the story, one day while herding his sheep, Moses encounters a bush that catches his attention, because it seems to be on fire, and yet not consumed. Drawing closer, he hears a voice telling him to take his shoes off because he iss standing on sacred ground. There in front of the burning bush, he encounters the Living God who reveals the Divine Name to him, and calls Moses into a new vocation to lead the Hebrew slaves of Egypt to freedom.
It is a powerful and a fascinating narrative, and one that over the centuries has invited a great deal of interpretation.
In the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, one of the favourite interpretations of the Burning Bush was as a symbol of the Virgin Mary. Aaron Denlinger a Presbyterian professor from Colorado writes that in the Pre-Reformation Church, the image of the burning bush “...served as a type or prophetic picture of Mary, the mother of Christ, who—just as the bush burned but remained whole—gave birth to the Son of God but remained forever a virgin.” In France in particular, pre-Reformation artworks depicting the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ at the centre of a burning bush were very popular in Catholic devotions to Mary.
Although, almost all of the early Reformers held a very high view and an admiration for Mary, as the Mother of God Incarnate, including the notion that she remained a virgin, they felt that the medieval devotion to Mary combined with intercessory prayers to Mary had spilled over into idolatry.
And so with the Reformation, came a fresh, reinterpretation of the image of the Burning Bush. John Calvin in particular interpreted the image of the Burning Bush as a symbol of the Church on earth, which faced many difficulties and troubles, and yet was sustained and kept alive by the Spirit of God. In this sense, he believed the Church was forever burning and yet not consumed by the fire.
As the persecution of Reformed Christians, particularly in France, began to increase, so this image of the Burning Bush became more and more prominent. The French Reformed Church of the Huguenots in the 16th Century indeed felt like they were a Church under fire, and yet a Church that could not be extinguished, sustained, as they believed, by God’s Presence, and their faith in God’s grace made known in Christ.
One of the biggest massacres of the Reformation was in France, known as the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day on 24th August 1572. It took place during the celebration of the king's sister Margaret’s marriage to the Protestant Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). Many of the wealthiest and most prominent Huguenots had gathered in largely Catholic Paris to attend the wedding. In the tragedy that ensued, around 2000 Protestants were murdered in the streets of Paris, which then sparked further massacres of French Protestants in other French cities.
Lest we think that only Catholics were capable of religious massacres during the reformation, we also need to acknowledge that Martin Luther supported the harsh suppression of peasants who formed part of an even more radical reformation than Luther’s in Germany. Ten’s of thousands of radical German Protestant peasants lost their lives to fellow Protestants during this time.
But the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1572 left an indelible mark on the Reformed Church in France. It caused of waves of immigration and exile of Huguenots from France, which lead many to move here to Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as many to immigrate to South Africa, which is why so many South African rugby players have French surnames. Wendy’s grandmother, who was an Afrikaans speaker in South Africa was very proud of her French ancestry.
The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day of 1572 would also have raised the sense that the Reformed Church of France was a Church under fire, and yet sustained by the grace of God. To this suffering and persecuted church they felt they were like the burning bush, burning, and yet not consumed.
It was eleven years later in 1583 that a small gathering of French Huguenot ministers and elders in the north western French town of Vitré met for the twelfth national synod of the newly established Reformed Church of France. It was at this meeting that they decided that their church needed to have an official seal, that they would stamp on any official Church rulings, thus giving these documents a mark of authenticity and authority as they were disseminated amongst the individual congregations. And so, at that meeting in 1583, it was decided to adopt the symbol of the Burning Bush as their official seal or emblem. From there, as French Huguenots began to flee France and become exiles in other parts of the world, including in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the emblem of the Burning Bush also spread.
The earliest use of the emblem in Presbyterian history occurred 52 years later in Scotland when William Mure included it on the title page of his book ‘The Joy of Tears’ which spoke of the troubles of the Scottish Kirk. But most significantly, it was used in 1691 on official documents of the Church of Scotland. An Edinburgh printer named George Mosman was tasked with printing the records of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and he took the liberty of adding an image of the Burning Bush on the title page. Although it was done without official permission the Kirk authorities, apparently took no exception to this, presumably because they were familiar with the use of the burning bush symbol by the French Reformed Church, and because they deemed it an appropriate emblem for their own church in light of both the sufferings they too had endured.
Almost by accident then, the Burning Bush became the emblem of the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland. And as Presbyterianism spread around the world it became a world-wide symbol of Presbyterianism, everywhere except the United States.
In Ireland the first use of the burning bush symbol was in Carrickfergus with the first edition of the Presbyterian newspaper called the Banner of Ulster in 1842. The newspaper featured the symbol of the burning bush above an open Bible. Above the emblem were the words ‘Ardens Sed Virens’ (Burning but Flourishing) which remains the official motto of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
It is uncertain, when the NSPCI adopted the emblem, although officially the NSPCI was only constituted in 1910. It is unclear whether the Presbytery of Antrim, the Synod of Munster or the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster used it before 1910. But of particular interest, as my Dad has pointed out in a previous sermon, the NSPCI is the only Presbyterian denomination to have a different motto. All other Presbyterian emblems contain a motto to the effect of ‘Burning but not consumed’, or ‘Burning but Flourishing’. The NSPCI instead chose to adopt the motto ‘Ubi Spiritus Domini, Ibi Libertas’ from 2 Cor 3:17 meaning, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’, speaking of the religious freedom that Non-Subscribers had to come to their own religious conclusions.
I have a sense that the significance of the emblem of the Burning Bush itself might have also had a different meaning for Non-Subscribers than for other Presbyterians. Influenced by new religious ideas and thinking, I wonder to what extent Non-Subscribers might have interpreted the Burning Bush as a symbol of the Presence of God shining through all of creation. Rev. Dr. Alfred Hall, who taught many of our NSPCI Ministers at the Manchester Harris Unitarian College in Oxford used to speak of the whole Universe as a Sacrament of God’s Presence and Glory. Putting it differently he wrote that the visible world is a garment of an Invisible Reality, reminding us of that beautiful verse in Isaiah 6 which speaks of the whole earth being full of God’s glory. In the story from Exodus, standing before that Burning Bush, Moses caught a glimpse of the Presence of God that shines through all creation, just as the disciples caught a glimpse of the Glory of God shining through the human face of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, a reminder that human beings, in other words, you and me, are also are meant to be like Burning Bushes, through which the Glory of God’s Spirit shines; shining from our faces, and through our eyes.
As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthian 3:18, just one verse after he states that where the Spirit of the lord is there is freedom, he goes on to say: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This passage reminds us that like the Burning Bush, we were all created to shine! To burn with the love and light of God, and yet not be consumed.
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