In his June Apostolic Letter on liturgical formation, Desiderio Desideravi, Pope Francis expressed concern that today’s society no longer understands symbols. What is this all about and why is it important?
Signs and symbols are placeholders for the real thing. They both point beyond themselves to something else. Signs have an intrinsic connection to what they indicate, like smoke to fire. Symbols point beyond their concrete existence and participate in the power or meaning which they represent.
Consider the American Flag. It consists of 50 stars representing the 50 states of the union. The 13 red and white stripes stand for the original 13 colonies. The red, white and blue colors also have significance. Red symbolizes hardness and valor. White stands for purity and innocence. Blue represents vigilance, perseverance and justice. As a symbol, all of these attributes cause the flag to point beyond itself and to the great country it represents.
Like the American Flag, the symbols of the liturgy are rich and profound. This richness can be lost without a basic understanding. Allow me to offer a list of some of the symbols we use in our Catholic Christian faith.
This is the Cross of Christ that not only memorializes Jesus’ crucifixion but also His Resurrection and the redemption of human sin. As the primary symbol of Christianity, it is a sign of Jesus Himself and an outward sign of the faith of those believing in Him. A crucifix often has the letters “INRI” inscribed on the cross over the head of Jesus. In Latin, these letters are short for “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum” which means “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Water is a symbol of life and cleansing. Just as water sustains human life, the symbol of water represents God’s grace and love sustaining our spiritual lives. As a symbol of cleansing, water is used during Baptism to wash away original sin. During Eastertime, water is sprinkled on us as a symbol of repentance and new life. When we enter the church, we wet our fingers with holy water and make the sign of the cross to remind us of our Baptism and that we are about to enter a sacred place.
Fire is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The fire of the Holy Spirit came to rest on the Apostles at Pentecost. This fire infused them with strength and courage. At Baptism we are given a lighted candle as a symbol of the Light of Christ guiding us on the journey. The large Paschal Candle in church is a symbol of the risen Christ.
Bread and Wine
While bread and wine are symbols, the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ. Bread is a sign of life giving food and the covenant between God and humanity. Bread is real food to the body as the Eucharist is real food for the soul. Wine is a sign of Jesus’ blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins and His promise for our eternal life. It is important to understand that the Eucharist is not a symbol. After the bread and wine are consecrated, they become the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Alpha and Omega
These are the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet. In the book of Revelation 1:8, 21:6 and 22:13, Jesus refers to Himself as the alpha and the omega, meaning, the first and the last. They symbolize our belief that Christ is the beginning and the end of all creation.
In the early church, the lamb was a symbol of Christ and the crucifixion. The lamb, known for its weakness, becomes a symbol of strength as Jesus, the Lamb of God, willingly died for us and was raised from the dead. It can also be a symbol of the Christian people being led by Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
The Dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the Dove is shown with an olive branch in its beak. This is a symbol of peace, of God’s grace and forgiveness.
The fish is one of the oldest Christian symbols. Early Christians used the fish as a symbol of their common Christian identity especially in times of persecution. It is often found in the Roman catacombs where Christians gathered to avoid persecution.
Throughout our experiences of religious symbols you will most certainly see the letters IHS. This is the Greek abbreviation of Jesus. It is derived from the first three letters of the Greek version of his name: Iota, Eta and Sigma. As a Latin expression, IHS stands for “In Hoc Signo vinces” which means “in this sign you will conquer.” While we can explain the origin of these letters using ancient languages, IHS originally simply meant “Jesus.”
Simply reading a list of explanations of the symbols is not going to be a life-changing event for you. Knowing their meaning will help you as you experience them in real time in the liturgy of the Church. The symbols can speak to us in a special way if we are open to their power. This power won’t come through explaining individual symbols. The liturgy will use all aspects of human senses. The symbols will be active components. They point to the presence of God alive and among us and to the sacred truths of our faith. They are something visible that represents an invisible reality. They affect a change within us brought about by the Holy Spirit. They guide us to God’s grace and a life of faith, holiness, love and hope.
Rick Swenton is a parishioner at St. Pius the Tenth Church in South Yarmouth where he is a cantor and member of the choir. He resides with his wife, Gail, in South Dennis.