This section should be read in association with the article entitled ‘Introducing Sacraments’, as they are deeply connected. For both sacraments and liturgy, an understanding of the nature of signs and symbols is essential. For this reason, signs and symbol are the focus of this introduction.
The most obvious type of symbol that we human beings utilise is language itself. Take any word you like and become aware that that word and the reality it stands for, while not synonymous, are intrinsically linked. Each word expresses the reality that it is said to represent, but it is not that reality in its entirety. For example, your name expresses you, but your name is not you. You would be you even if you did not have that name, or even if you had no name at all. And yet, when your name is said we think of you and you are made present to us. Language represents the inherent human ability to symbolise and make reality present. What is more, words allow us to bring a reality that exists outside of ourselves into our heads and our hearts – to think about that reality, or emotionally respond to that reality – and to rearticulate it for ourselves and for others.
So the first thing to note is that human beings are instinctively symbolic creatures. We need to be able to symbolise to be able to think, feel and communicate. Let us take another example. Think for a minute about what you are wearing. If you are wearing jewellery or other accessories, such things are often symbolic. They say something about who we are, what we like, or who is important to us – especially if the piece in question is something we were given.
For example, those wearing wedding rings are very familiar with the power of symbol. We know that we are wearing something that symbolises a number of realities all at once: the person we are married to, the commitment we have made, the love we feel for that person, and, if we have a religious consciousness, God.
What is interesting about the various things just listed as symbolised by a wedding ring (and there are others) is that all of them are in reality almost inexpressible. Let’s take the first thing that the ring is said to symbolise: the person to whom we are married. We can agree that the ring is a symbol of her or him. But can we ever fully express the reality of this person? We can have a good go at it. We can believe that we know and understand that person thoroughly. But the truth is that one person cannot ever adequately express another. This leads us to an important point: symbols typically express realities that are beyond our ability to experience fully or to articulate adequately.
This being the case, we should not be surprised by the link between the symbolic world and the sacramental and liturgical worlds. Symbols are essential to religious communication. They allow people to express the profound realities that are beyond expression. They are “here and now” realities (sometimes referred to as ‘immanent’) but they participate in realities well beyond themselves (‘transcendent’). It is for this reason that we refer to sacramental and liturgical symbols as being ‘transparent’. That is to say, we see through them and beyond them to a deeper reality. So, we can say with conviction, the world of symbols is essential to the fundamental understanding of liturgy, of sacrament, and, indeed, all human life.
The revelatory and universal value of symbols and their creative and transforming power stems from the fact that, as modern anthropology asserts, we are ‘symbolic animals’. To be human means to coexist and to participate with others in interconnection and relationships. This interconnection and these relationships form the context in which symbols, and therefore sacraments, function as conveyors of meaning.
Because of the human capacity to interconnect and relate, and because we have a spiritual dimension to us, human beings have the ability (and, on some level, the desire) to relate to God. As embodied spirits, we are symbolic beings in our nature: in our ways of thinking, acting and communicating. The making of symbols is so central to who we are we find ourselves doing it without even realising it.
This capacity, dare we say ‘need’, to see beyond things to different levels of meaning, is an expression of the human being’s potential for the spiritual. It is as if human beings know that what you see is not all there is. In fact, human existence itself cannot be explained in terms of itself; it points to the beyond. As already mentioned, it is transparent – we can learn to see through it to a deeper reality. The world around us is the place where human beings meet God.
With all this in mind, you may be startled to learn that you yourself are a symbol. Whether you know it or not, part of the meaning of your existence is that you symbolise something much bigger than yourself. On the most basic level, every human being represents humanity. That is to say, to see you is, in a genuine sense, to see all of us. While you are unique, you share things in common with all of us. If you were taken away and examined by an alien race, they would learn a lot about us through examining you. They would learn how human beings function biologically, what our basic chemical structure is, our dietary requirements, the fact that we need to sleep, that we can learn, that we have emotions, that we need relationships etc. To see you is to see beyond you to all of us.
However, not only are you a symbol of us; you are a symbol of the One in whose image you are. Whether you experience it this way or not, you exist because the One who is the source of all existence wants you to. How that happens is something only God knows. That this is the case is something God has told us. One way of looking at it is like this. If we agree that human beings have the capacity to see beyond things to deeper realities (to ‘symbolise’), there is no reason why there should be any limit placed on this capacity. Any particular symbol can take on more and more meaning without end. Fairly soon, then, you start encountering the profound things of life – moving beyond the superficial to the infinite and the eternal. Once you do that you begin to contemplate those things that defy our comprehension – the Infinite One, the Eternal One, the One that many have come to refer to as ‘God’. As a result of this capacity, we can say that, in all creation, human beings are the clearest (albeit imperfect) symbol of God. This is so because, like God, you can think, feel, make decisions, and relate to other beings. You have a spirit, and God is Spirit. The book of Genesis puts it this way: The human person is created as the visible sign and image of God (Gen. 1:26).
Symbols are to be lived out
Only through interiorising the mystery of the symbol can we find its meaning. When we live out our ritual symbols, that is to say when we reverence them and become increasingly open to their significance, our lives become transformed in the process. It is only when these things begin to touch us at the centre of ourselves – sometimes unexpectedly – that we start to have any idea what they are about. Whether or not this goes anywhere and leads to real change in a person depends on the individual. Not everyone embraces the invitation. Before liturgical symbols can transform, we need to be open to their power. Each of the symbols – e.g. the Anointing oil or Baptismal water – need to be experienced as more than just static things but as dynamic expressions of life and the divine gift in them. In today’s secular society, it is common to speak of alienation from religious symbols and their increasing irrelevance to many. The answer to this challenge lies, not in the symbols’ lack of power, but in our failure to contemplate them and to allow them to speak to us. The sense of the sacred in men and women is atrophied. If God’s people receive an awakening to the sacred mystery available to them in the symbols and the rituals that express them, then communities can become cradles of faith-filled creativity, cradles in which symbols will thrive and become alive, and human lives can be transformed through an experience of a relationship with the living God.