The liturgists have been telling us for years now, “If you have to explain it, it isn’t a symbol.” The argument runs like this: a symbol should be immediately apparent. If the reality which it signifies is not immediately accessible to human understanding via the sign or symbol, it obfuscates rather than clarifies the reality to which it points. When applied to the sacred liturgy, this argument is used to put certain rites, ceremonies and symbols in abeyance. Better to have a few things understood well rather than many things which just seem odd and out of touch with contemporary sensibilities.
In that vein, there are many things which have virtually disappeared from Catholic life which, up until forty years ago, were stable fixtures in Catholic worship. Black vestments and catafalques for Requiem Masses, Gregorian water at the consecration of churches, the “baptism and chrismation” of bells, incense, the papal tiara, the vesting of the Bishop for a Pontifical Mass at the throne. These have all been either expunged from the Ordinary Form or just rarely or not used at all in its celebration at many places.
But there are things which still hang on. Ashes on Ash Wednesday are still so popular that people who never come to church any other day come to receive the mark of penance and conversion from sin. Bishops still carry pastoral staffs called crosiers, even though Annibale Bugnini campaigned hard to get rid of all episcopal insignia. Cardinals still receive a red hat, if not that big red hat called the galero. We still have candles in church, and even when they are electrified, they mimic the scatty flame of a real candle. And we still use water, for baptism, for blessings, and even to wash the priest’s usually clean hands at the Lavabo (although that rite is being replaced by the squirting of Purel into the palms of the presider, which means that we should probably change the name of the rite to a neologism offered by the new Academia Pontificia Latinitatis).
Liturgists assure us that these signs and symbols, the ones they permit to stay in the modern liturgy, are accessible to modern man and can actually be rich vehicles for catechesis. They are self-explanatory, and hence more powerful. At the same time, though some signs and symbols have been invested with an almost political significance that would arguably be alien to the interpretation of the same symbol just a few years ago.
For example, kneeling is one of those symbols. Historians tell us that kneeling was a symbol of penitence in the ancient Church, and not a symbol of adoration; thus, the proper posture for the Eucharistic Prayer and for Holy Communion is standing. Somehow it is more proper because it is more ancient. But the same people who argue for the restoration of this symbol fail to recognize that, for many people, kneeling means humility, submission and adoration, which is why they want to kneel, and why Catholics did kneel for the Canon and Communion for many centuries. Even though the Magisterium has clarified that no one may denied Communion for kneeling, there are still priests who refuse to give Holy Communion to faithful who kneel. They are accused of being retrograde, disobedient and attention-seeking. People who kneel are accused of being “holier than thou”, and people who stand are in turn accused of being “liberal and heretical.” A posture has had its sign value deconstructed by ideology, and invested with a significance that has more to do with the culture wars within the Church than what it meant in the first place.
But, all of these signs and symbols: are they really as transparent and immediately accessible as the liturgists claim that they have to be, in order to be effective?
When I go to do an Anointing of the Sick or a Baptism, whenever children are present, I often do a catechesis about the oil itself. Oil may have had an association with athletes limbering themselves up for sport competition, recalling perseverance in spiritual battle. But nowadays we use it for cooking, and in motor oil to run our cars. The direct(ish) correspondence has been lost in modern life. The symbolism has to be explained according to its historical significance. And when that symbolism is explained, and the kids get to smell the chrism and see the anointing, it makes a profound impact on how they see the sacrament. It all of a sudden has more meaning that it did before, had I not explained it. I could argue that the sign was self-explanatory. I mean, after all, it is the matter of a sacrament, which effects the grace that it signifies, right?
Sign and symbol, I would like to propose, are part of a language of faith that must be decoded, translated and meditated upon by the announcement of evangelization, mystagogical catechesis and contemplation of the Mystery and mysteries of faith if they are to have an effect beyond the ex opere operato: if they are to continue to nourish the daily life of the believer. They are in no case immediately accessible, anymore than a newborn babe can immediately understand, process and speak in her native tongue or learn a second one.
I was raised as a fundamentalist Baptist, in a church just about as iconoclastic and removed from sacramental economy as one can get and still be a Christian. I discovered Catholicism through books, and read a lot about signs and symbols which are part of art and rite. But none of my extensive reading prepared me for my first time in a Catholic church.
The first time I went into a Catholic Church, after having read about its beliefs and practices, I noticed something for which I had no explanation. I saw people putting one knee to the ground. The words of Scripture came to mind, At the Name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, from Philippians 2.10. I was eager to “when in Rome do as the Romans do,” so I got out of my pew, and touched my knee to the ground before trying to enter it again. Now, the problem was, that I was facing the door of the church, and not the altar area of the church, and a woman coming in the door next to the pew tripped over me and said, “What the hell are you doing?” Such was my welcome to the Catholic church. I was all flustered and embarrassed and said, “I don’t know!” It took time for me to realize that everyone bent their knee in the same direction. And it was not until RCIA that someone went through the whole explanation of people kneeling before feudal lords which then crept into the church as people gave the same sign of obeisance to their Heavenly King. It was only later that I learned the connection between genuflection and the reserved Blessed Sacrament. And it was in graduate school that I read that the genuflection to the Altar was actually older than the genuflection to the Blessed Sacrament, and that bowing vs. genuflecting before Altar and Sacrament have a very complicated history.
I had no frame of reference for bowing or genuflecting. I had once seen a Japanese tea ceremony on a field trip and saw how my friends who did Karate bowed to each other before engaging in their sport, but I could hardly see how that had anything to do with anything in church. There was nothing natural in learning to bow and genuflect. It was all explained to me as part of that Catholic language of ritual which organically grew over time and which I learned to love.
There were lots of other things I immediately came to recognize. The first time I saw the Sprinkling Rite, immediately the words of Scripture (Ezekiel 47.1) came to mind: I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple. I knew the symbolism immediately: it was a re-enactment of something from the Old Testament in the vision of Ezekiel. Later, in RCIA, I was told that it was a symbol of Baptism. “Why did we need a symbol to remind us of Baptism?” I thought to myself. The priest throwing water from a dogwood branch on Easter Sunday did not remind me of being plunged by a guy in a dark suit and tie into a warm pool of water behind the pulpit of my local Baptist church.
I mention all of these things because it is important to realize that sign and symbol are not always as transparent as Catholics who have already been instructed in their faith think they are or should be. I was already a Christian, and had a decent command of the Bible for a 12 year old. But, as I discovered Catholic worship, I decoded what I was seeing against the backdrop of my knowledge of the Bible, and not what a Catholic family member had taught me to do without explaining to me why we were doing it. That was the only language I had, and so some things I understood, particularly with reference to the Tabernacle and Temple liturgy. Then there were other things which were just lost on me, until I bugged someone into giving the answer for why we did the things we did the way we did them.
One of the things I love to do is teach children about the liturgy. I often start by exploring the Old Testament with them, by teaching them about Tabernacle and Temple, and then reading Hebrews with them, and talking about the synagogue. As I do so, a lot of my kids make the connections between the Scriptures and the actions they had witnessed and done themselves since their Baptism without knowing the why behind it. I have to add some post-Scriptural history for them to understand some things, but they develop a frame of reference in which to understand the language of the liturgy in a way which Scripture and Tradition come alive to them.
Whenever I hear of a minimalism with respect to sign and symbol, or an ideological push to recontextualize, deconstruct and ridicule the rich symbolism of the past, I get very sad. While not all signs and symbols are possessed of the same value, and some are more relevant to faith or useful for instruction than others, I think the time has come to stop dumbing down the liturgy by stripping it of whatever we do not like or do not want to teach about. It is time to receive the liturgy in all of its richness as a gift, and find appropriate ways for the faithful to add to their already deep language of faith a wider vocabulary and more sophisticated grammar so that the poetry of divine worship can penetrate the daily prosaic.