“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (Gal 6:11).
The feedback I received in response to a column about church bulletins prompted me to consider that other powerful medium that parishes everywhere use to communicate with their communities: church signs! We are all familiar with the unintentional messages that a hastily worded sign can send: “Don’t let worry kill you off — let the church help.” Or the possibly intentional misspelling in this one: “God’s will is perfect; people make misteaks.” Keeping with the meat theme, one church sign announced: “Best sausage supper in town. Come and eat the new pastor.”
At their best, church signs reflect the cleverness of their authors and all the crafty ways churches use to communicate with fast-moving traffic. Here, too, I have a few favourites. One sign announced: “God wants spiritual fruit, not religious nuts.” Another read: “Need a lifeguard? Ours walks on water.” And as someone who spent 25 years in sunny Australia, I found that this sign resonated with me in particular: “If you are the one who keeps praying for snow . . . please stop.”
Signs, of course, are as old as humanity itself. We have evidence that the ancient Romans and Egyptians erected stone or terracotta signs to identify places and their function. King Richard II of England actually passed a law in 1389 forcing all publicans to put up signs identifying their premises . . . or they had to forfeit their ale! Perhaps my favourite example of these is what we call ghost signs, those fading ads painted directly on older buildings or barns, that continue to resonate long after the product or establishment has disappeared. These are now so popular there are even companies that organize walking tours in search of them.
Signs matter. This, a sign says, is who we are. I was reminded of this recently after St. Mary’s University dropped the word “college” from our name. One of the first acts that I authorized in response to this was to have our name changed on all the university entrance gates! I was surprised to receive a flurry of enthusiastic notes when the signs were unveiled.
Needless to say there can be no greater sign than Christ. Announced by angels and stars, choirs and believers, the ultimate Sign of the Times has been the most successful invitation to worship that the world has ever known. No typos, no hard sell, no gimmicks. Just an amazing promise fulfilled by someone who is timeless and always relevant. Or as one church sign put it: “Hipster Jesus loved you before you were cool.” Amen to that!
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.