It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. At a time when so much of the debate about the EU referendum is based on personal and national self-interest, it’s well worth reflecting on the symbolism of the the EU flag. Whether its designers were aware of this or not, it taps into very ancient symbolism that runs throughout the Jewish and Christian scriptures. These reflections may lead us to deeper questions underlying the decision to vote in or out on 23 June 2016.
The official description states “It features a circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background. They stand for the ideals of unity, solidarity and harmony among the peoples of Europe”. Most of us would probably agree that these values are important . Of course there are deeply opposed views on whether they are best served by the UK staying in the EU! Instead, let’s reflect for a moment on how the symbols of faith, culture and politics can help create unity. When teams or nations cooperate harmoniously, they can become more than the sum of their parts. On the other hand, tense debates about the right ‘structures’ are too often a sign that the spirit of unity has already departed, so let us turn to Scripture for inspiration.
Representing the harmonious union of different groups by a (metaphorical) circle of 12 is first found in the Old Testament in the 12 tribes of Israel, descending from Jacob’s 12 sons, and their relation to the 12 stones upon the breastplate of the High Priest. These 12 jewels are later described as adorning the foundations of the New Jerusalem, which will descend from heaven, the city walls of which have 12 gates. The cosmic, Biblical importance of the number 12 was summed up in Revelation 12:1 “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head”.
The 12 tribes are a profound illustration of how people organised in natural groupings of genetic and cultural identity can find a deeper unity, through a shared heritage and common religious aspiration. And of course from a Christian perspective the most important group of 12 is that of Jesus’ disciples, often pictured sitting around the table of the Last Supper. The Disciples thus form the link between God’s mission for the Israelites and the future “circle of 12″ of the whole world pictured in the Book of Revelation.
Did the designers of the EU flag mean to suggest that the EU could function as a secular version of the 12 tribes or 12 Disciples – or was this just an intriguing coincidence? Certainly, to suggest that our contemporary political structures could or should mirror Biblical prototypes might come dangerously close to eroding the separation of Church and State.
Yet in European culture, a different table around which diverse personalities came together, united by a great leader has often gripped the popular imagination. This was the Round Table of King Arthur and his knights. Although the political system described in the Arthurian stories is a feudal aristocracy, the idea of a ’round table’ around which people met with an equal right to speak and be heard, and an equal say in decisions made, has been an important image in the history of democracy. From the Magna Carta, to the call for universal suffrage, to the formation of the United Nations, the idea that everyone affected by decisions, or at least their representatives, should meet ‘around the table’ has held increasing sway over our political sentiments.
The image of strong characters, whether the Disciples Peter, James and John or the knights Lancelot, Galahad and Bors, pulling together for the greater good despite their difference, through their presence around the table of a greater leader, is an inspiring reminder of the value of unity in diversity which is basic to God’s creation.
Although unity enforced by an authority figure has its place, the most valued union in the New Testament is that where all individuals share the same Spirit inwardly and work together in free and voluntary cooperation and synergy. We don’t need to be ordered or told what to do when each person’s special contribution is an essential part of the whole. This is the miracle of Pentecost, when the Spirit descended on Jesus’ Disciples and others present all heard themselves addressed in their own native languages. At Pentecost, the division of languages was overcome, and this was not done through a bland technocratic uniformity, but through a circle of Apostles united in the Holy Spirit which they received through Christ and sent out on their missions, much as in the secular analogy, the knights were sent out on differing missions and ‘quests’.
There is in fact a famous scene in the Arthurian legend where the knights witness the image of the Holy Grail gracing the table as they gather for Pentecost, (pictured at the top). Yet unlike the Acts of the Apostles, the Arthurian legends end in failure. Towards the end of Arthur’s life, his Fellowship falls into disunity and he is ultimately murdered by his own son Mordred. Unlike the Disciples, without Arthur’s strong leadership and charisma, the Round Table principle failed.
How can the Holy Spirit be received by the nations of the world, so that they work together as a harmonious ‘circle’, voluntarily, without needing authoritarian leadership or military force to compel ‘peace’?
The parallel between the Apostles and the Knights shows that there is room for a group of people or of nations to live in unity – not uniformity – in deep respect for each others’ vocations. But there must be a unifying Spirit. Pentecost was the moment when God prefigured the ultimate overcoming of the division between the nations. It was a foretaste of the moment when the New Jerusalem descends from Heaven and the “circle of 12” will be complete on earth, as it is in heaven.
We wait in expectation to see how God will bring this about amid the messy political and economic realities of earthly life. Whichever way the UK votes on 23 June, let us contemplate the image of the ’round table’ of nations united in the Peace and Understanding of God’s Spirit.
The heavens declare your glory, in their seamless and ageless splendour.
Let us always seek our source and our end in Your unity, not in earthly things.
Jesus Christ, Word of God,
you taught us to love one another. Let us honour your pattern in the whole of Creation, in every person and every thing that is, infinitely diverse and infinitely One.
descend on us as you did upon the Disciples and send us out to preach the Good News to all nations,
that each may know the presence of the Spirit of Truth within them.
Triune Lord, strengthen us to build a Round Table on Earth while we await the descent of the New Jerusalem,
That your Kingdom come, and your will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.
James North May 2016