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 apparent in the art of stained-glass windows, the poetry of hymns, and the music of an oratorio.

Today Christians often wear symbols as personal reminders or as public witness to their faith, or simply as an expression of their religious identity. Perhaps the most popular of such symbols today are the cross and the fish, sometimes seen as a cross neckless, a fish placed on the boot of the car, or a religious logo on a tee-shirt. Clergy will often wear distinctive clothing during church services, and may also wear a ‘dog collar’ for the rest of the week in order to indicate their special calling within the community.

The cross is the principal symbol by which Christianity is now recognised. It reflects the central belief in the sacrifice and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Over time, the form of 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 ‘secular’ 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 religious symbolism. This is a common pattern in much western art, music and literature.

The language of devotion, 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 ye all of this, for this is my blood’. This is clearly not meant in a literal sense but in a mystical way, affirming the life-changing nature of the Kingdom of God at work in the body of the church.

When a Christian bows before the cross, kneels in the pew for prayer, genuflects at the blessing, or holds up his/her hands to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit, symbolic expressions of belief are being made. Thus, a direct relationship exists between beliefs, emotions and actions, indicating belief in an all-powerful God, but also recognition of His presence, and acknowledgement of His holiness and honour.

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