Symbolically Speaking image

Symbolically Speaking

I’ve been writing up some notes on ecclesiology for a training session I’ve got coming up. A couple of days worth of teaching material on the church has, of course, to include an exploration of the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and this has got me thinking again about the power of symbols.

The contemporary world has lost its sense of the power of symbols. This loss is revealed in greater and lesser ways. For instance, when I was a boy, hot-cross buns were only sold at Easter time, but now they are available all year round. This is a trivial example, but it reveals a deeper underlying loss.

The thing about symbols is they tell a story – and the story is a means of providing identity. For example, think about the symbolic significance of red phone boxes, double-decker buses and London black cabs for British identity. In many ways these are just trivial things, but they have in some way come to identify us, and help us know who we are. They are important not merely because of their function, but because of what they represent: which is why the removal of most red phone boxes a couple of decades back, while a functionally sensible thing to do, was actually in some way socially destructive.

It is difficult to establish cause from effect, but I wonder to what extent the erosion of ‘British symbols’ has been significant in the they-nearly-did-it campaign for Scottish independence. It seems almost crazy even to suggest it, but perhaps the removal of all those red phone boxes severed sufficient strands of British identity to help make the break up of the Union seem more realistic, and desirable. And I wonder if the choice of anthem sung before international rugby matches has had a more obviously significant impact – that the English team sing ‘God Save The Queen’, which is after all the British national anthem, while the other home nations sing their own, contextualised, anthems is more than just singing songs – the symbolic effect is profound.

Symbols are powerful, but I’m not sure about the cause and effect. Have symbols of Britishness been abandoned because they had already lost their power? Or has abandoning the symbols neutered their power? Or is at actually (as I’ve previously suggested) that at times we can invest the symbol with more meaning than the thing that is being symbolised, thus creating a false story for ourselves (as I think has been the case with some of the Scottish-myth-making)?

Symbols make a physical impact. A practical example of this for me is my wedding ring. On one level it is ‘merely’ a symbol – a small piece of gold, with an objective value; but symbolically it is worth far more than that. And what’s more, because I have been wearing it a long time it has physically marked me – even if I take it off the evidence that I have been wearing it for years is imprinted on my finger. Symbols are greater than the thing they are made of.

Symbols are powerful because they represent something real. My wedding ring represents an actual moment in time, when I said, I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage and as a symbol of my love and faithfulness; all that I am I give to you and all that I have I share with you in the name of Jesus. It also represents an on-going reality, that I am married to the woman to whom I made that promise.

Biblically, this is how symbols operate. Consider the manner in which the Israelites understood the symbols of their faith: for example, eating the Passover lamb was about current experience, not only distant memory. God had commanded that they keep this symbol “through all generations” (Ex 12:14), so it functioned both as a reminder/symbol of what had happened in their deliverance from Egypt, and as a reminder/symbol of current reality, that they were a delivered people, kept by God. So a thousand years after the Exodus the Passover meal was still as ‘real’ as it had been that night in Egypt.

For us Christians the symbols of the Lord’s Supper and baptism are powerful – they are not merely symbolic! The symbol points to the reality, so when we follow Jesus’ command to do this, in remembrance, we are pointed to the reality of Jesus our Passover lamb (1 Cor 5:7) – that Christ is our means of exodus, that the Cross is our crossing point.

Bread and wine are symbols. At the Passover Israel ate unleavened bread, the “bread of affliction” (Deut. 16:3), for seven days as a reminder of their afflictions in Egypt. Christ offered his body as the true bread of affliction. The bread we eat is the symbol of this.

In Exodus 24:8 the covenant was confirmed by sacrifice, “Moses took the blood and threw it on the people.” This was a powerful – highly visual – symbol that the people were really part of this thing. When Jesus took the cup and said, “the new covenant in my blood” he was ushering in the Jeremiah 31:31-34 promise of a new covenant, not like the Exodus covenant. Jesus takes all the symbolism of the Exodus and wraps it up in the new thing he is doing. The wine we drink is a symbol of this.

Calvin put it this way:

I admit, indeed, that the breaking of bread is a symbol, not the reality. But this being admitted, we duly infer from the exhibition of the symbol that the thing itself is exhibited. For unless we would charge God with deceit, we will never presume to say that he holds forth an empty symbol. Therefore, if by the breaking of bread the Lord truly represents the partaking of his body, there ought to be no doubt whatever that he truly exhibits and performs it. The rule which the pious ought always to observe is, whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present. For why does the Lord put the symbol of his body into your hands, but just to assure you that you truly partake of him? If this is true let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given to us.

I can’t quite work out what is happening with the symbols that once signified Britain, but I’m very glad that when I take the bread and cup in my hands I am truly partaking of him. They are symbols, and they are powerful.


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