Volume 117, Number 4, Winter 1990
SIGNS AND SYMBOLS: A REFLECTION
(This is reprinted from "Faith," a bi-monthly published in
London, England. It was originally given as an address to a
youth group at John Fisher School, Purley, Surrey, England.)
Strange, isn't it, how often it is the little, every day things in our
lives that we fail to appreciate or perhaps even really understand. The use
of signs and symbols within the Catholic Church is, I think, a case in
hand. There is nothing new in the use of symbols; Christ Himself made use
of them, verbally in His parables, and physically, as in the healing of the
paralyzed man, to signify to the unbelievers the power that He had to
forgive sins. (Mk. 2:1-132).
The Church is in no doubt as to the value of signs and symbols as is shown
in the Code of Canon Law, canon 834:
"The Church carries out its office of sanctifying in a special
way in the sacred liturgy, which is an exercise of the priestly
office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy, 'by the use of signs
perceptible to the senses, our sanctification is symbolized and,
in a manner appropriate to each sign, is brought about.' Through
the liturgy a complete public worship is offered to God by the
head and members of the mystical body of Christ."
This theme is echoed in the Vatican II document, "Sacrosanctum Concilium,"
"...the visible signs which the sacred liturgy uses to signify
invisible divine things have been chosen by Christ or by the
Church...When the Church prays or sings or acts, the faith of
those taking part is nourished, and their minds are raised to
God so that they may offer him their spiritual homage and
receive his grace more abundantly."
Because we are not pure spirit but body and soul, the use of signs and
symbols appeals to the mind via our physical senses. It is a yearning to
express the faith that cannot be put into words, thus integrating both the
material and spiritual in an act of worship and reverence towards God.
THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
A logical place to start, since it is a very ancient Christian habit, is
to begin and end prayers with the sign of the cross. Yet the only
recognizable biblical reference is in Matthew 28:19 when Our Lord tells His
apostles, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
The practice of making the sign of the cross dates back to at least the
second century. It was said to recall the blood of the lambs marked on
Jewish doorposts in Egypt on the night of the Passover (Ex. 12:7) and to
foreshadow the seal set on the foreheads of the saints in heaven. One of
the earliest references to the sign of the corss is found at the end of the
second century in these words of Tertullian: "at every forward step and
movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and
shoes...in all the ordinary actions of everyday life, we trace the sign"
(of the cross). Whether such diligent self-crossing was generally observed
is impossible to tell, but it does illustrate the importance that the early
Church attached to the cross. Another important thread is drawn out by
Saint Thomas Aquinas who said: "by making use of bodily signs of humility,
our desire to submit ourselves to God is aroused."
So, how does the above apply to us in the present day and age? When we
make the sign of the cross, it is a reminder of our baptism. It also brings
to mind the general vocation that we as Catholics are called to, as
illustrated in the rite for adult baptism when the priest signs the
recipient with the cross saying:
"Receive the cross of Christ on your forehead. Christ Himself
will guard you by this sign of love. Learn to know and follow
that cross...Receive the cross on your breast, that by your
faith Christ may find a dwelling place in your heart. Receive
the sign of the cross on your shoulders so that you take on the
sweet yoke of Christ. I sign you in your whole being 'in the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' that
you may have life in eternity."
Let us not underestimate this "sign of love," for when we reverently make
the sign of the cross, it is not only a confession of faith. It is also a
reminder of the price that Christ paid for our healing and redemption so
that we can call God "Abba! Father!" and eventually come into His presence
in the glory of the kingdom of heaven.
I have memories of my school days, when after class Mass, a certain Irish
teacher would issue his eternal reminder: "genuflect reverently, boys, as
you leave the chapel." It is a reminder that is worth echoing. How often
have you seen a child bring up the gifts at the offertory procession and
then scamper back to Mum, having made at best a half-curtsey, at worst
nothing at all? Come to think of it, how often have you seen adults setting
the youngsters a good example in this respect? So, why do we genuflect on
entering or leaving a church, or when passing the Blessed Sacrament?
The action of genuflecting is usually associated with the "incarnatus" of
the Nicene creed (from the eleventh century) and with reverence for the
Blessed Sacrament (from the fourteenth century). It derives from civil
recognition of imperial officials in antiquity. I mention this because it
is at the nub of why we actually genuflect. It we are introduced to an
eminent person, we make some sign of recognition of this fact. In extreme
cases (such as royalty) this may take the form of a bow or curtsey. Surely,
then, it should go without question that we should make some sign of our
adoration and humbleness of heart by genuflecting when we enter the
presence of Jesus Christ, who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, through
Whom and for Whom all things were created?
Genuflecting instills into us our dependence on Christ, our loving
Saviour. Of course, such actions go against the grain of liberated
humanity, especially in this day and age when authority of any kind seems
to be fair game for attack, but let us not forget the words of Phillipians
2:10: "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on
earth and under the earth."
Perhaps somewhat significantly, water most often symbolizes the qualities
that it actually possesses: those of cleansing and purification. There is
nothing new in this; pagan religions used water as a symbol of purification
and, as Fr. James Tolhurst points out in his pamphlet, "Baptism: What it
means," in the traditions of most civilizations we find that water is the
source of life, strength and even eternity. Jesus Himself said that
"whoever drinks of the water I shall give him will never thirst; the water
that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to
eternal life" (John 4:14).
For Catholics, the first encounter with this life giving water comes when
we are baptized, and in that washing away of our sins, we become adopted
sons and daughters of the Father.
Even after baptism, holy water continues to play a part in our liturgical
lives. When we enter a church, we cross ourselves with holy water as a sign
of cleansing to be worthy of prayer in the presence of God, which also
serves as a reminder of baptism.
In the nuptial Mass, the wedding rings of the couple are blessed using
holy water. One can view this not only as an act of purification, but also
as a sign of the "dew from above." That is, what dew is to the land--life
giving and prosperous--let the blessing of God be in your soul: in this
case, bringing prosperity within the marriage.
Why "holy" water? Because it has been blessed by the Church with solemn
prayers which take effect when the holy water is used by an individual.
THE CHURCH BUILDING
This is a controversial subject, but like so many others, it need not be
if only people would be guided by the Church. Canon law gives the following
"The term church means a sacred building intended for divine
worship, to which the faithful have right of access for the
exercise, especially the public exercise, of divine worship
When we enter a church, there should be "that sense of being uplifted,
which the magnificence of God's house and the beauty of sacred ceremony
offer to the eye and ear, to intellect and heart, faith and feeling" (Pius
XII, Feb. 6, 1940). Of course, it may be argued that "the church" is not
hallowed stonework, but "the people" and there is truth in that. However,
it should not be forgotten that the hallowed stonework is a sacred sign of
the hallowed people who fill it!
The architecture and construction of churches must obviously be carefully
considered. Article 128 of "Sacrosanctum Concilium," referring to
ecclesiastical laws which "govern the provision of external things which
pertain to sacred worship," states:
"These laws refer especially to the worthy and well-planned
construction of sacred buildings, the shape and construction of
altars, the nobility, placing, and security of the eucharistic
tabernacle, the suitability and dignity of the baptistry, the
proper ordering of sacred images, and the scheme of decoration
There is a certain loss of nobility when the pattern of crucifix-
tabernacle-altar is disrupted, as in many modern churches. This is because
the configuration is such a succinct summary of the life of Christ: the
cucifix represents our salvation and redemption; the tabernacle beneath
contains the sacrament of life, while the altar is where the Sacrifice of
Calvary is renewed and applied through the ages.
Of course, personal tastes and preferences play a part in all this and I
am not suggesting that all churches should be of elaborate gothic or
baroque designs; a quiet dignity befitting a place of worship is perfectly
adequate. However, neither should the thoughts and aspirations of
individual architects take priority over the responsibility that their work
entails. This responsibility is best illustrtated in these beautiful words
of Vatican II:
All artists who, prompted by their talents, desire to serve God's
glory in holy Church should ever remember that they are engaged in a
kind of holy imitation of God the Creator; that they are concerned
with works destined to be used in Catholic worship, for the
edification of the faithful and to foster their piety and religious
formation ("Sacrosanctum Concilium," Article 127).
Here we can touch briefly on the topic of church decoration and, in
paticular, the use of statues. Canon 1220 states:
"Those responsible are to ensure that there is in churches such
cleanliness and ornamentation as befits the house of God, and
that anything which is discordant with the sacred character of
the place is excluded."
Most of the modern decoration that I've seen is not particularly
devotional or even, in some cases, particularly beautiful. Again, we must
not forget that the aim in decorating a church is to glorify God and
inspire devotion within His people.
Statues are an excellent form of ornamentation and they provide a focus
for our prayers. It is rather like a spiritual photograph, a means of
calling to mind the life of the holy person whose image is before us. It is
a misconception to say that Catholics worship statues. We do not, as is
plainly shown in canon 1188, which (while encouraging the exposure of
sacred images) lays the caution that "these images are to be displayed in
moderate numbers and in suitable fashion, so that the Christian people are
not disturbed, nor is occasion given for less than appropriate devotion."
SYMBOLISM OF THE EUCHARIST
The real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is something that we
as Catholics should believe without question. But why should He appear
under the form that He does, that of bread?
Bread has long been regarded as the basic food of man. In the desert God
fed the children of Israel with manna, bread from heaven (Ex. 16:14-16);
during the 1917 Bolshevik revolution the people cried out for "Peace!
Bread! Land!" What could be more natural, therefore, than for Christ to
dwell among His people under the guise of bread, our basic and essential
spiritual food in Holy Communion strengthening us in faith and love? He has
already taught us to ask His Father for "our daily bread."
In conclusion, signs and symbols are not additional decorations that have
been tacked on to the liturgical life of the Church or, indeed, to us as
individuals. They are important because through them and with a proper
understanding of them, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the history and
beauty within our faith and, through that, come to a greater love of God.