Signs and Symbols

Issue: What is the Catholic perspective on the use of signs and symbols?

Response: Signs and symbols are creatures,[1] either created directly by God or designed by men using natural shapes and designs, which mean or communicate
something more than their own existence. Because man is an intimate union of body and spirit, making and using signs and symbols is consistent with his being. Signs and symbols are good in themselves.[2]

Discussion: Humans make and use symbols and signs because we are a unity of body and spirit. We are not, nor were we ever intended to be, purely intellectual or spiritual beings. C. S. Lewis often said, “God likes matter. He invented it.”[3] This is true. In Genesis we read that God created the earth and everything in it, and called it “very good” (Gen. 1:1, 31). When God created man, He formed him out of earth (dust, slime) and breathed life into him (Gen. 2:7). We communicate, learn, and understand not by “mental telepathy” but through our senses and physical media, like pictures and books, speech and words, tastes and smells, gestures and postures, touch and textures. Everyone makes and uses symbols and signs because they suit our human nature. The philosopher may try to convey an abstract, intellectual concept, but he does it with paper, ink, and language.

Symbols and signs surround us. They are important to every culture. How many times this month did you or someone you know nod, shake or hold hands, bow, smile or frown, point, dress up, give a gift, open a door for someone, see or wear a wedding band, applaud, or kiss or hug someone? All of these actions are physical or bodily, but they all represent something more: a meaning that is more than physical. Some signs are rather arbitrary, like the fact that United States stop signs are octagonal. They might have been square. Other signs resemble what they signify in some way, like a portrait of a president on
a coin or the color red signifying blood. Either way, signs and symbols are inescapable.

Because there are a limited number of natural signs and symbols, different cultures or groups of people often use the same symbol to mean different things. For example, in some ancient, pagan cultures, the pomegranate symbolized fertility. In Catholic art, the pomegranate symbolizes the Church. The use of the pomegranate by pagans doesn’t make the pomegranate “evil,” nor does it imply the Catholic Church is pagan. It is important to understand the context of a symbol’s use and the meaning intended by the user, or the interpretation of the symbol will be incorrect.

Objects and Images

As the list of examples above shows, many different kinds of things can be used as signs or symbols. The first kind most people think of are touchable or visible things like objects and images. Objects that serve as common American symbols include the Statue of Liberty, bald eagles, and American flags. There are also common American images, like portraits of Washington and Lincoln, pictures of “Uncle Sam,” Democratic donkeys and Republican elephants, or art incorporating the colors red, white, blue, and stars and stripes. When United States citizens see these commonly understood objects and images, they immediately think of the United States of America. Sometimes these symbols inspire patriotism and confidence, sometimes disappointment or disgust, but
almost all Americans know what they are and what they represent. They are part of the American “visual vocabulary.” These objects and images do not necessarily mean the same thing to people from other countries.

The Catholic Church also uses meaningful objects and images. The cross and the crucifix are probably the most common, representing the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ for all men, and the kind of love He calls us to have for others. Another common symbolic object is the altar. It reminds us of the sacrificial altars of the Old Testament and their fulfillment in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Its symbolism becomes most evident when Jesus is
offered in the perpetual sacrifice of the Mass. Vestment and altar linen colors signify different attitudes of prayer associated with the Church’s liturgical seasons (penitential, joyful, hopeful, etc.). Objects and images like these are part of the Catholic Church’s “visual vocabulary.” Catholics who are “fluent” in this visual language can understand more fully the Gospel the Church seeks to communicate.

Words and Gestures

Sometimes signs and symbols are a little more subtle, like words and gestures. Although many people don’t stop to think about it, words themselves are signs and symbols which represent objects, ideas, and other realities and communicate them to others who know the language. Words have definitions, but they can also carry specific connotations. For example, both “fight” and “contest” express competition, but the connotations of “fight” are usually more extreme than “contest.” A contest can be friendly, fights are often rather unfriendly. “Home,” as another example, usually has warmer and cozier connotations than just “habitat.” Both the definitions and connotations of words help a person to express his ideas to others. Some words are rather arbitrary,[4] but some sound a little like what they represent, like “bang!” and “splash.” Gestures, with or without words, can also communicate. The question “what do you mean?” is understood very differently when you shake your fist at the same time. Shaking your fist without any words, or giving someone a hug without any words, can sometimes communicate your meaning just as well as or better than words. Words and gestures can be powerful signs and symbols.

The Catholic Church, knowing how universal and potent words and gestures are, also makes use of these signs and symbols. All Catholics, for example, make the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The words combined with the gesture of crossing oneself call to mind the Trinity, the Incarnation and passion of Christ, and our baptism. The gesture incorporates the head, the heart, and the shoulders, which are associated with the intellect, the will, and physical action respectively. It is also an invocation of God in prayer. The simple but profound sign of the cross is a summary of
the Christian faith intended to reorient us to God.

The Nicene Creed, also known as the Symbol of Faith (cf. Catechism, nos. 185-197), summarizes and represents, in human words, Catholic beliefs about the inner life of the Trinity and God’s saving works in the world. This profession of faith, which we all share in common, further signifies our Catholic unity in faith and morals. The Creed is sometimes called a “treasure” and “guardian” of the Catholic faith. Some Catholic gestures communicate meaning even without words, like sprinkling people or objects with holy water and the kiss of peace. Sprinkling people or objects with holy water is a gesture
signifying that blessings are being given, or that the sprinkled things are being devoted to God. The kiss of peace is a gesture signifying our unity through charity. When we understand the meanings behind Catholic words and gestures, we can participate more fully in the life of the Church.

Places and Times

Though we hardly stop to think about it, unless we happen to be tourists at the time, places can be very significant too. The monarchy of the United Kingdom itself serves a mostly symbolic purpose in modern times, yet the British cannot help but feel that Buckingham Palace represents, for better or worse, their homeland and way of life. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier symbolizes our gratitude to those patriots whose names we cannot honor but who nevertheless gave their lives for the country. Some significant places are closer to home—literally. Many people have separate “living rooms” and “family
rooms” for different purposes. The living room is often reserved, like the front door, for more formal occasions, while the family room and back door are open to more casual or intimate occasions. Though the use of rooms varies widely, most people do attach some significance to their rooms.

Catholics also have significant places. Rome is a great example. Before and even some time after the advent of Christ, Rome was the seat of a powerful empire, which was, moreover, hostile to the faith. Christians considered it a phenomenal victory to have an established Church there, planted by Peter and Paul. To this day, the presence of the Vatican City alongside the city of Rome shows that Christianity has outlived that hostile empire, just as it will outlive all other empires. As the See of Peter and his successors, it is also a location representing Catholic unity.

There are also significant Catholic places “closer to home.” Many people no longer realize that different parts of a church building represent different things. As you pass through the front doors, you enter a room known as the narthex or vestibule. This part of the church building traditionally represents the times of the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, who anticipated the coming of Christ. The holy water and baptismal fonts are usually located in the narthex or just inside the next set of doors. As Baptism opens the gates of heaven for us (cf. Jn. 3:5) and introduces the convert to Christianity, the reminder of this sacrament (blessing oneself with holy water) enables you to enter the nave, the room where Christians assemble to worship, which represents redeemed humanity on earth. The nave faces the sanctuary, which is an elevated part of the church. The sanctuary is often set apart from the nave by an altar rail or an iconostasis, and contains the altar. This part of the room represents heaven, to which Christians on earth look. Because of
this significance, only the ordained, who act in persona Christi, could traditionally move freely in and out of the sanctuary, especially during the Liturgy.[5] Those who seek to understand the significance of church architecture are better prepared to actively participate in the Divine Liturgy. The signs and symbols surrounding us communicate volumes of meaning each time we attend, and enable us to worship God with every part of our being.

In addition to matter,[6] time is another dimension to human existence. When God created the heavens and the earth, He also created time. Throughout history, special times have also been set aside and given symbolic significance. People all over the world mark anniversaries of births, deaths, or weddings; anniversaries of a nation’s founding, communities, organizations, or buildings; sunrises and dusks; new years and seasonal cycles; etc. Some times are naturally significant, like harvests and the lengthening and shortening of days throughout the year. Other special times, like the time of day
people have a large meal, may be somewhat arbitrary. The keeping of special times or routines, and their use to communicate important meanings, is universal to mankind, and it is appropriate because humans are temporal creatures.

The Catholic Church also recognizes the universal importance of significant times. As explained by Pope John Paul II, “In Christianity time has a fundamental importance. Within the dimension of time the world was created; within it the history of salvation unfolds, finding its culmination in the ‘fullness of time’ of the Incarnation, and its goal in the glorious return of the Son of God at the end of time” (Tertio Millenio Adveniente 10). Because
of this, the Church gives meaning to particular times. The best example is the liturgical calendar. The liturgical year is divided into several seasons, such as Advent, Christmas, and Lent, to call our minds and hearts to important events in the life of Jesus and His Church. In many cases, the liturgical seasons correspond in some way to the natural seasons,[7] showing how the supernatural order fulfills the natural order. There are feasts or fasts nearly every day to direct us in different attitudes of prayer, such as joy and thanksgiving or sorrow and hope. Important Catholic times and events, through
which we participate in the events of Jesus’ life, announce that we are members of His Body, that only in Him may we be saved. Through the Church’s calendar, when we understand its significance, we see that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

Physical and temporal signs and symbols, like the ones mentioned above, are good, because they arise from and are consistent with the way God made us. Just as we are “physical, but more than physical” or “temporal, but more than temporal,” so are our symbols.

Some Christian symbols are well known. The fish, for example, is a symbol of Christian belief about Jesus Christ—a kind of “miniature creed.” This symbol arose from the fact that the Greek initials for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” spell “fish” (icqus) in Greek. Other well-known Christian symbols are listed above. Some Christian symbols are a little more obscure. Peacocks, for example, often symbolize Jesus’ transfiguration. Oak symbolizes enduring faith. If you don’t know the meaning of a particular sign or symbol, there are many places to find out, including some of the books listed below.

As Christians, we are supposed to devote our whole lives to God, in Whose image we are made and remade. One way we devote ourselves and respect His order of creation and redemption is by giving things and events in our lives, or recognizing in them, religious meanings or significance. When we do this, we are really imitating His Own actions. God, for example, hallowed the seventh day (Gen. 2:3) and made the lamb a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice (Ex. 12, Jn. 1:29). The Church and her members follow His example by making and keeping feasts and fasts, and by blessing things or assigning them religious
significance. The sacraments, liturgies, and sacramentals of the Church are themselves signs and symbols of our faith. Because they are what they signify, the sacraments have a place of honor as the ordinary means by which we receive the grace of salvation (cf. Catechism, nos. 1210, 1212). Similarly, sacramentals are the ordinary means by which we sanctify the world from within (cf. Catechism, no. 1670). By giving things and events religious significance and recognizing the religious meanings they communicate, we devote those things and ourselves to the worship of God. We give back to Him the
things He gives us (cf. Catechism, no. 358).

Recommended Reading:

The Holy Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Evangelical Is Not Enough: The Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament by Thomas Howard

Chance or the Dance?, Thomas Howard (Ignatius Press)

On the Divine Images, St. John of Damascus (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, Flannery O’Connor (Noonday Press)

Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, George Ferguson (Oxford University Press)

To order, call Benedictus Books toll-free: (888) 316-2640. CUF members receive 10% discount.

Faith Facts, Answers to Catholic Questions, Suprenant and Gray

To order, call Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Available Faith Facts:

• Enneagram • Defending Our Rites: Constructively Dealing with Liturgical Abuse • Marriage in God’s Plan: Discovering the Power of Marital Love • St. Nonna • Signs of the Christ: The Sacraments of the Catholic Church

© 1999 Catholics United for the Faith, Inc.

Last edited: 6/30/99

——————————————————————————–

[1] “Creatures” means any thing (alive or inanimate, spiritual or material or temporal) that is not God.

[2] For more information on this topic, see Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 299, 362-368, 1145-1199, 1879, 2700-2704, esp. 1146.

[3] This saying is found in more than one Lewis book, including The Case for Christianity and Mere Christianity.

[4] “Entschuldigen Sie, bitte” (German) does not resemble “Pardon me” (English), but their meaning is the same in many situations. If the listener understands both languages, you can use either.

[5] Cf., for example, John 3:13. A priest’s movement in and out of the sanctuary, or alternatively facing the altar and facing the people, represented Christ’s mediation on the behalf of humanity.

[6] Objects, images, words, gestures, and places are all material things; they are either made of matter or, in the case of words, communicated by it.

[7] This is true mostly of the Northern Hemisphere. For example, Christmas occurs around the same time the days start to lengthen, when the sun “overcomes” darkness. This signifies the Messiah, the Light of the world, overcoming sin and death (Mal. 4:2; Mt. 4:16; Lk. 1:78-79, 2:32; Jn. 1:4-5 & 9, 8:12, 12:36 & 46).

Date created:
2/23/2005
Date edited:
10/10/2007

Associated PDF File:
Download Here

You may need to obtain a free copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader to use this PDF file