Signs & Symbols: A Reflection

Author: Emilio Higglesden

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 4, Winter 1990


(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," article 33:

"...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.


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 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.


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 definition:

"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 (canon 1214)."

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 and embellishment."

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."


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.