Symbols of Faith
Religious symbolism permeates all aspects of the religious life. For Christians, symbolism is in use in devotional practice such as genuflection or ‘crossing’, in acts of worship in the liturgy, even in the architectural design of the building, the church, chapel or cathedral,. Christian symbolism is implicitly apparent in the art of stained glass windows, the poetry of hymns, the music of an oratorio. Today Christians often wear symbols as personal reminders or as a public witness of their faith. Most popular symbols include the cross and the fish.
Symbolism enables both Christians and the secular world to recognise the presence of Christianity in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Whether this is by an individual who chooses to wear a cross around his or her neck, a fish placed on the boot of the car, the dominant symbolic presence of a parish church or the distinctive clothing of the clergy, all these things aid the easy identification of a Christian presence.
The cross is the principle symbol by which Christianity is now recognised. It reflects the central belief of the sacrifice and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Over time, the cross has been altered by different denominations to reflect their own traditions. However, it is likely that the earliest Christian symbol (dating from the 2nd century CE) was in fact, the fish, derived from the acrostic ICTHUS in Greek meaning ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.
Other symbols are visible through literature. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and CS Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ are explicit in their use of symbolism to convey the Christian message of salvation. Many other writers, such as Evelyn Waugh, use implicit symbolism. This is a common pattern in all areas of art, music and literature. Study of the nature of symbolism enables the reader to gain new insights into the Christian faith.
The language of devotions in worship and theology often carries a meaning of a symbolic rather than a literal nature. This is most apparent, for many Christians, in the rich language of the Eucharist. A priest in the Anglican tradition says, ‘Take eat, this is my body’ and ‘Drink you all of this, for this is my blood’ not in a literal sense but in a mystical way, affirming the life-changing nature of the Kingdom of God which is seen in the body of the church.
Symbolism is therefore a useful tool that allows a Christian to gain insights and understanding into their faith which is a mystery. In many respects, symbolism is a concrete and picturesque manifestation of belief, and provides a useful structure around which belief can be hung for expressing that which cannot fully be expressed in everyday language.
When a Christian bows before the cross, or kneels in the pew for prayer, or genuflects at the blessing, or holds his or her hands up to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit, symbolic expressions of belief are being made, and the direct relationship between belief, expression and action are formed indicating belief in an all-powerful God who is Trinity and who sends blessings on His children.