Symbols and Sacraments

The Power of Symbols

The Power of the Cross

 

 

Christianity is a religion rich with symbols. The bread and wine, the cross and even baptism are all symbols that carry deep spiritual meaning, but what does it mean to say they are symbols ? To some the word symbolic means 'unreal' or 'just for show' but obviously those who get baptised, or take the bread and wine hope that what they do goes beyond the surface. So where does the power of symbols come from ?

The best definition of a symbol I have ever come across is - 'a symbol is a visible sign of an invisible reality'. We are used to dealing with things we can see and touch. What we sometimes don't realise is that a lot of the things that influence us are unseen things. Much of the world we interact with is invisible. This doesn't mean it is spookily hidden somewhere just beyond our sight, but just that it is not physical. Take for example a friendship. Is it real ? Friendship can be very real, it is something that can be relied on, it can affect the way you feel and what you do. On a hot summers day you may be planning to spend the day sunbathing when a close friend rings you up in a crisis, and for the sake of the friendship you change your plans and go and visit them instead - even though it is the last thing you wanted to do. Every friendship is different, they have their own characteristics and qualities and yet where do they exist ? You certainly can't point to them and say here it is or there it is. Your relationships form part of this 'invisible reality' that shapes our world.

As a more down to earth example lets look at a 'danger' sign. This is a good illustration of that definition 'a visible sign..' !.... Suppose we have a road sign saying 'danger - falling rocks' and a neat picture of some tumbling boulders. Now the sign is by a cliff and so the fact that the danger is 'real' is obvious. But when you look at a rock which bit is the bit that is danger ? The 'danger' is not a physical part of the rock but is in what might happen - the rock might fall. This 'possible future' is part of the invisible reality, but it is still very real. Because we humans are not always good at being aware of invisible reality we need something visible to point us to it. The 'danger-sign' is this visible symbol that bridges the gap between us and the invisible part of reality.

Lets look at the symbolic act of the leaders of two warring nations signing a peace treaty. What does it mean to say that it is symbolic ? It means that what is really happening extends beyond the physical appearance. The physical act is really quite minor, no matter how much pomp and ceremony it might be dressed up in. The two men take pens and squiggle their names on a piece of paper - hardly something very special ! And yet somehow, on the basis of it, men put down their guns, planes stop bombing, people stop dying and so on. All this because of a signature or two ! The secret is obviously not in the squiggles but in what they represent. The signing of the treaty represents the two nations agreeing to stop fighting - but it needs those signatures to come into force. Up until the treaty is signed one of them could back out, but upon signing the treaty is sealed - and through it peace arrives. The small act brings about great consequences because it points to and brings about the greater 'reality'. This is the power of the symbol. That signature carried the force of a nations will, in the same way symbols can carry the force of what they represent.

In actual fact the pomp and ceremony is there in order that the weight of the action might be properly appreciated. If you focussed purely on the physical it would be easy to miss the real nature of what was taking place. By dressing it up with ceremony and gravity it points to the reality of the situation. The ritual and ceremony of 'high church' fulfils a similar role. This is why some people are more able to feel the presence and awesome nature of God in these surroundings - the seriousness of high church ceremony points them to the magnificence of God.

When we talk about invisible reality in the context of religion what we really mean is spiritual reality, because God is invisible but very real and very powerful. What this means is that when you bridge the gap between us and God there is a flow of life and power. The symbol itself is not just a passive and irrelevant thing - like a train ticket that we leave discarded behind us after we have boarded the train - but instead it carries the power, like a wire carrying electricity.

A good example of Christian symbol is the sacrament of the bread and wine. On a physical level the process is very mundane, if not a little absurd. A little bit of bread (or wafer if you are a catholic) is eaten, followed by a little bit of wine (or blackcurrant juice if you are a baptist). This signifies the body and blood of Christ and how we partake of them. Now the sacrifice of Jesus is always available to us. Through his body (his substance) and his blood (his life), that were literally given on our behalf, we can find forgiveness and healing and new life and lots more besides. That's not just limited to when we take the bread wine, but when we do we can be joined to the power of that sacrifice. That power is very real but we aren't always aware of it - the bread and wine is the visible sign that points us to that reality.

Because they are a good symbol they easily connect to that life. Just like a picture of tumbling boulders easily communicates the message of 'danger - falling rocks' so the bread and wine easily speak of the body and blood of Christ. A picture of a frog on a sign saying 'danger - falling rocks' would just be confusing and not communicate anything - the symbol must be something that leads you to what it represents. In this way the bread and wine take on the nature of what they represent - as we eat the bread we actually partake of Christs body. This does rely on us wanting to connect. It is possible to do it in an ordinary way and not experience the power - in fact the bible specifically warns against doing this ! The power of the sacrament is in the reality of the power it points to - but it is in the act of the sacrament that we more fully enter into that invisible power.

In a similar way a baptism is a symbol not just of the washing away of sins but also of joining Christ in his death and being raised again with him. This is what is signified by entering the water and coming out again. More than that though - as you physically enter the water you are actually joined with Christ in his death, (that defeated sin) and as you come out of the water again you are joined with him in his new life. The physical act changes us - it brings us into the spiritual. Therefore it is important that we realise that when we say something is symbolic we don't mean it is irrelevant, as in the worldly use of a 'merely symbolic act'. What we mean instead is that the symbol joins us to the spiritual realms. In this way the sacraments are a powerful way of connecting to the life of God. This can be especially true for new believers as they provide a tangible gateway into the spiritual. The Cross, the Eucharist and oil for prayer often carry the anointing of God and are an effective way of communicating his presence. (Eucharist is a posh word for holy communion and apparently is a Greek word we have imported into the language without translating it !)

In the Old Testament the ministry of the priest was to bring God to the people. Under the new covenant of Jesus we take on this ministry.

For example 1 Peter 2 : 5

5 you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.

And Rev 1:5-6

To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father.

But this is prophesied and more clearly explained in Isiah 61:6

6 But you will be called the priests of the LORD; You will be spoken of as ministers of our God.

Through us people are to come to God - we are to minister God to them which is the priestly role. In this sense then we are symbols of God for others - our lives and what God has done in our lives are visible signs through which others can see the work of God and are pointed towards him. What was previously invisible to them becomes visible because God is present in us and the connection is made. We become a living sacrament - through us the life of God flows !

In grand conclusion then we can see that the great truths of this life lie not in the physical world around us but in the invisible world that is nonetheless ever present and very real. The sacraments are means that God has provided us with to more easily enter into the power and the truth of the spiritual that he has for us. Not only that, but through what God has done in us we too can become a means, a visible sign, for others to enter into that spiritual life.

Written May 2003.

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Last edited Sun Oct 01 20:14:26 2006.

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