Symbolism is defined as the art or practice of expressing the invisible or intangible by means of visible or sensuous representation. Symbols make the communication and understanding effective and efficient in the field of Science, Art, Technology and Religion. In symbols two things are brought together, first something that is real and second something that represents that which is real. His Grace Dr. Mathews Mar Severios stated in his sermon on ‘Symbolism in Christian Worship’, “Worldly symbols are static and lifeless. But Christian symbols are dynamic and vibrant. Christian symbols are not meant for exhibition, but as a medium to reveal divine grace and experience it by means of sacraments.”
Symbols have a place in Christian worship as early as we can establish. The origin of Symbolism in Christianity can be traced to the catacombs. Catacombs were underground cemeteries, where Christians came together for fellowship in fear of persecution in the early days of our church history. There commences the earliest usage of symbols. St. Basil the great says, “Honoring the images leads to the prototype.”1Symbols used in Orthodox liturgy includes things, images, gestures and rituals with a definite meaning and purpose designed by the Holy Spirit inspired the fathers of our church. St. John Chrysostom cautions non-believers saying, “Dishonor shown to an image is dishonor shown to the original.”2 Purpose In Christianity, symbols are the medium holding the force and grace of manifesting the ineffable God to man. In other words, these signs carry us beyond the worldly realm into the true union and knowledge of things that are eternal and divine. Symbols serve to make invisible the visible. “For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world is made visible through the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). We see images in creation which remind us faintly the glory of God. (Psalm 19:1-3) A Symbol can represent something in the future, mystically shadowing forth what is to occur. For example, the ark represents the image of the mother of God; the burning bushes without being consumed prefigure the virgin birth (Exodus 3:2); the serpent brings before us him who vanquished on the cross the bite of the original serpent (John 3:14); the sea is a figure of baptism in water, the cloud represents the blessing of baptism in spirit (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). Even the law is depicted as a shadow of good things to come by St. Paul (Hebrew 10:1).
Symbols can be an expression of the past events; to help those who look upon it in after times that we may avoid evil and imitate goodness. St. Athanasius the great illustrates that, “The Jew worshipped the tablets of the law and the two golden cherubim in carved work, not because they honored gold or stone itself, but the Lord who has ordered them to be made.”3 (Jos.4:21-22, Ex.28:11-12, Ex.17:14). Leo, Bishop of Neopolis in Cyprus says, “We are worshiping Christ through the cross, not the wood of the cross.”
Our Lord Jesus used a lot of symbols during his public ministry to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven and to teach mankind the right course of life and eternity. The parables are exclusively symbolic presentations to make things more comprehensible. (John 8:12; John 10:11, 14; John 10:7, 9; John 14:6; John 15:1, 5; Revelation 1:8,11, 17; Revelation 22:16; Mathew 5:13,14; John 1:29)
Worship is the symbol of veneration and of honor. There are different degrees of worship. St. John of Damascus had made the well-known distinction between Absolute worship and Relative worship. Absolute worship (Worship of Latria), is given to the God, who alone by nature is worthy of worship. Relative worship is the veneration given to material objects which remind us of God, to the saints who have gone before, and to our fellow Christians. For instance, Abraham bows before the sons of Heth (Gen.23: 7); Jacob bowed to the ground seven times before his brother Esau (Gen. 33:3), Brothers of Joseph bows before him (Gen.50: 18); Joshua bows before the messenger of the Gods (Jos. 5:14). It is for the sake of the God who is worshipful by nature, we honor his saints and servants (1 Sam.2:30). The creature is never to be worshipped instead of creator.
In Orthodox faith, Symbols never reflects the reality in an absolute way. They always leave something unstated. St. John of Damascus confirms that, “An image is a likeness of the original with a certain difference, for it is not an exact reproduction of original.”4 This allows symbols to serve as the proper language for what Orthodox theology calls “mystery”. God reveals himself to us through symbols of the Church. St. Gregory of Nazianzen endorses an image as an essential representation of its original5.
The mother Orthodox Church has always used visible things to help us understand invisible realities, which is beyond the reach of our senses. The use of symbols is a mode of revelation and communion, which surpasses verbal or intellectual communication. Symbols are not directly related to the realities in a literal sense. Instead, it stands for deep and broad meanings. It is simple, profound, and unique. St. John of Damascus echoes, “The image is a memorial, just what words are to listening ear. What a book is to the literate that an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to the sight as words to the ear; it brings us understanding.”6
Symbolism is not about technical explications, but the quintessence of spirituality. Christian symbol has its basis on divine revelations. It is not evolved from self-desire. Instead, it is the Holy Spirit inspired representations. Symbols are meant to be edifying and for the purpose of preparing mankind to attain the perfection of the heavenly father. For example, the infinite god was revealed and comprehended as one and triune. It is not meant for intellectual debate and is beyond human understanding. It can be understood only through prayer, faith and the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Understanding the Symbols
Symbols used in sacrament can be comprehended only by faith. The first step in understanding a holy symbol is to have unification between the spiritual meaning of the symbol and us, in the Holy Spirit. It is not an intellectual or theoretical study. Intellectual approach seals the door of understanding of the symbols in the sacraments. It is not to be understood by the external elements and gestures. It is to be contemplated in spirit.
The understanding of symbols in the sacraments and church is beyond sensual experience. It facilitates the exaltation of the creature in the likeness and image of the creator, through meditating unfathomable acts of the creator behind the creation. Man is destined to bear the image of the uncreated God. We have to accept this mystery with gratitude and obedience towards our creator. It is not an imaginary contemplation through prayers. The vain imagination can lead us into spiritual distress. St. John of Damascus reinstates the essence of comprehending symbols in liturgy testifying, “I do not worship matter, but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation.”7 The use of material objects and even images in worship enjoys a sanction in the Old Testament; for the Ark of the Covenant was adorned with the cherubim and Aaron’s staff and the tablets were placed within, and the God commanded Moses to make an image of a serpent to heal all who were bitten by snakes in the wilderness.
Holy Qurbana is not an intellectual remembrance to mediate. We should partake in it believing it is the body and blood of Christ for our internal transformation and purification. There are a lot of symbols used in the Holy Qurbana as things, gestures and rituals which can be realized and experienced only in worship with truth and the Holy Spirit. Besides, the Architecture of our Churches, virtually everything we see in an Orthodox Church symbolizes and calls to mind some aspect of our meeting with eternal Divinity.
The study we have here is pretty brief. Everything, we do in our sacraments and other rituals have its own meaning and purpose. Neither more nor less, everything is done in the exact capacity being designed by the fathers of the church inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is tedious to discuss everything in detail in a succinct analysis. In a nutshell, symbols in the Orthodox worship are not to be taken as pieces of artistic device; rather as windows or doors into spiritual world. They are designed to enhance the spiritual life of the believer through emulating the virtues of the prototype. Consequently, symbols can be a blessing in our lives if we use them in a spiritual way.
1 St. John of Damascus, Holy Images, Translated by Mary H Allies, Thomas Baker, London, 1898, p.24.
2. Ibid. p.121.
3. Ibid. p.120.
4. Ibid. p.10
5. Ibid. p.112
6. Ibid. p.19
7. Ibid. p.16