The other day, my hands mysteriously swelled up. Not huge, but enough for me to notice. It was uncomfortable. I tried to take off my wedding ring, and with some effort I was able to. But then, because I can’t stand not wearing my wedding ring, I put it back on—again, with some effort. Of course, because my hands were swollen, it was even more uncomfortable. So I took it off again. Then I put it back on. Then a little later I took it off again. By now, it was extremely difficult and uncomfortable to remove even with soap. After it was finally off, my ring finger looked and felt like it was twice the size of the rest of my hand. It really hurt, and I could barely make a fist. I definitely bruised or sprained it by tugging this inflexible metal circle on and off of it. So the finger rebelled and swelled up from the tissue damage.
After a quick consultation with my wife, the mystery was solved: I had eaten an inordinate amount of salt that day (and probably for a few days). For lunch I had a gyro sandwich with a big plate of fries with lots of ketchup and mustard (yes, I mix the ketchup and mustard together). Then for dinner I ate an obnoxiously large plate of leftover pasta with cheese and sauce. Then I went to a basketball game and ate a big box of salty popcorn. All told it was probably ten times the amount of salt I normally eat in a day, and of course there were no vegetables forthcoming. Voila! Water retention. Swollen hands. What an idiot.
Anyway, discouraged by the discomfort, I put my poor ring in a safe place, iced my finger, and drank a ton of water. The next day, my hands were back to normal—except for my left ring finger. That was still swollen and hot, clearly injured by my own idiocy. I gingerly tried on the ring and stopped at the knuckle: “Not today,” said the finger. It was clearly still upset with me.
Now, I’m not usually a “thing” guy. I mean, I’m not overly sentimental or concerned about my possessions. I’m not a collector, I don’t take pride in my vehicle, and I don’t mind second-hand anything. But to be perfectly honest, not being able to put my ring back on drove me bananas. I found myself keeping my hand in my pocket or hiding my hand all day because I felt naked without it. I thought people might be looking at me and thinking, “Where’s his wedding ring?” I thought about it when I was away from home, and when I was home I checked on it several times to make sure it was still where I left it. I was downright anxious about it, even working myself up to the point of irrationally fearing that I would never be able to get it back on.
You have to understand, I think this was the longest I’ve gone in 15 years without wearing my wedding ring. It’s just never not on my finger. Period. Well, now it wasn’t. And I couldn’t stand it. I prayed about it. I prayed for it. I felt like Gollum from Lord of the Rings: obsessed and distracted. The second ring-less night I even dreamed about it. Literally, I had a dream that my ring freely went on and off my finger, and in the dream I was overjoyed.
About the middle of the day today, I felt I could try again. Blessedly, the finger was normal enough that I’m happy to announce that the ring is back on my finger where it belongs. Oh, the bottom flange of my ring finger is still slightly angry with me, but I don’t care. The finger will heal, and it’ll just have to heal with the ring on it thank you very much.
Only after all that did it occur to me why this object means so much to me: because it points to something greater. My truck points to nothing. My pants just say I “saved big money” at the hardware store. But this ring is different. This ring was given to me by my wife. A pastor blessed it on our wedding day, and she then placed it on my ring finger “as a sign and token of wedded love and faithfulness” in the name of the Triune God. It points to her. It points to us. Sure, it’s just a “thing,” but not to me. For me it’s irreplaceable because it’s a sign and token of something (someone) greater and irreplaceable.
Soon you’ll be taking out all those old Christmas mementos and decorations, many of which are especially meaningful to you. You’ll also go online and to the stores and buy a whole bunch of things for people in your life. When you see all these things, I hope you think about what they actually mean. Think about why they are actually important (if they are). If they are, it must be because they are signs and tokens of something greater: memories, loved ones, Grandma’s cookies. These things have meaning because they have been imbued with meaning from something or someone greater.
Then watch the church’s decorations appear. Gaze upon the unique collections from generations of congregants: the stars from that one memorial fund; the porcelain statues that are there every year without fail; even that one Chrismon that seriously looks like a frog and when you see it you can never not see it. All these trinkets—all these things—are valuable, and some irreplaceable, not because of what they are in and of themselves but because they have been imbued with meaning by something greater. They are signs and tokens of something greater: the star of Bethlehem; the angelic host; the baby in the manager; the saints gathered together in worship of the God who took on our own frail flesh to suffer and die for us.
There may have been a time in my life when I was sanctimonious enough to scoff at the expense and hassle of all these Christmas decorations and hullabaloos. But I know better now: things are only idolatrous if you forget why they exist. Over a pair of wedding rings, the pastor prays, “Almighty Father, you have generously created all things to serve us for our good. Send your blessing upon this couple who shall wear these rings as a constant reminder of their marital fidelity…”
Notice the blessing is not for the thing, but for the couple. Similarly, I pray that this upcoming holiday season, when you see all the things they draw you into contemplation and thankfulness for what they as signs and tokens point to: