From crucifixes to candles to the Sign of the Cross, symbols are deeply woven into our Catholic Faith. These symbols are not pointless items to take lightly. They exist to enrich our prayer life and help us grow closer to Christ. We can study our Faith, talk about our Faith, listen to CDs, and hear great homilies. But the symbols of our Faith provide another layer of teaching to help us understand what we believe.
For example, the Stations of the Cross displayed along the walls of our church allow us to use our imagination to share in the suffering of Jesus on the way to Calvary. The fourteen stations each portray a different image inviting us to meditate on His Passion and death. The Stations of the Cross are “symbolic” of that first Good Friday to help us appreciate exactly what Jesus endured for us. As with all of our Catholic symbols, they touch our whole self: mind, will, emotions, and body.
A symbol is something that stands for something else. It literally “re-presents” an idea to us in a different form so we can take it in more fully and deeply. Some symbols are images, such as the lamb representing Christ as the Lamb of God. Other symbols are abstract, such as the initials IHS, an abbreviation of the Greek name for Jesus. Color can be symbolic. Blue is usually associated with the Blessed Mother, white with purity, and red with martyrs. Gestures also carry a symbolic meaning. Genuflecting before the tabernacle, with Christ present inside in the consecrated hosts, represents our reverence and allegiance to Him as our Lord and King. In each case, the symbol points to something more significant beyond itself.
One important distinction to understand is the difference between a symbol and a sacrament. A symbol represents something, while a sacrament is something. The Eucharist is not a symbol of the body and blood of Jesus. It truly IS the body and blood of Jesus. The water used in Baptism is not a symbol of the cleansing of original sin. It IS the means by which we receive God’s cleansing grace of the sacrament. However, holy water at the entrance of church is a symbol which reminds (re-presents) us of the time we received the Sacrament of Baptism.
Our rich Catholic tradition has many symbols so everyone, no matter their personality or preference, can experience God through their body, senses, emotions, and minds. All these symbols have something in common: they remind us of our Faith. Every time we dip our hand in holy water, make the Sign of the Cross, genuflect, light a candle, or look at the crucifix, we are reminded of our Faith and invited to deepen our reverence and draw closer to the Lord. What are your favorite symbols of our Faith, and do you know what they mean? Understanding the meaning of our symbols can have a positive influence on our attitude towards prayer and being in the presence of our loving and gracious God.
Adapted from Catholic Answers Magazine, January-February 2018