Symbols of the thing signified
I discussed this with my father who made the observation that this is a phenomena of the past decade – it didn’t used to be like this. (And with over 40 years of pastoral experience behind him he has a long historical perspective against which to measure such things.)
This got me thinking about how it seems increasingly the case that the symbol becomes more significant than the thing signified.
As I have noted before, arbitrarily imposed dates are treated with growing seriousness. Our culture – which celebrates independence – witnesses an increasing conformity in these things. We see this with Mothers Day, with Valentines Day, with Christmas Day (yes, I know that this day celebrates Christ’s birth, but it is arbitrary in the sense it wasn’t actually when Christ was born and its religious significance is much reduced today).
Essentially, these are dates that have found their way into our calendar as symbolic moments when we give special focus to our mothers, our lovers, or our Saviour, but which are now controlled by the engines of commerce.
As families breakdown, relationships fracture, and religious observance decreases, the dates that are set to symbolise family, fidelity and faith take on a life of their own. There is a desperate overcompensation for the hollowness of our lives in the money that must be spent and the attention that must be focussed on these arbitrary dates in the calendar. To not observe them is now a form of social blasphemy. The thing signified has become dwarfed by the symbol.
Confusing the symbol with the thing signified is a constant danger for the Church. We see this in both ‘high’ and ‘low’ expressions of church. High churches can seem to make so much of the ritual of infant baptism, or the beauty of the eucharist, that what water, bread and wine actually symbolise is lost. The symbol gains within itself a significance that obscures that which is meant to be signified. In low churches, things look different, but reflect a similar confusion – believer baptism and communion being reduced to the merely symbolic, with no sense of the power present in the thing signified.
Ironically, for those who truly understand the power of symbol as a gateway to the thing signified, Mothering Sunday should demand like no other one’s presence with the body of Christ in worship. After all, it was Jesus who left his mother standing outside as a symbol of what he was inaugurating: “Here are my mother and brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12:49-50) In the kingdom of God, the blood of Christ shed at the cross is thicker, and binds us closer, than the blood of placenta and maternity.
On Mothers Day this year I preached from 1 Corinthians 11 about head coverings. The point of Paul’s teaching in this notoriously difficult passage seems to be that external symbols reveal something important about the thing signified – in this case, worshipping in a way that leads to honour of God and one’s fellow worshippers rather than shame. The external symbol is important, but only because of the thing it signifies.
Our recent cultural hyperactivity over dates such as Valentines Day and Mothers Day and Christmas Day are surely then a symbol. A sign that we have actually lost our grasp on the real significance of faith and family. We are left clutching at straws – very expensive straws, disguised as overpriced roses, and quickly abandoned gifts, and elaborate dinners. The symbol has replaced the thing signified.
As we approach Easter symbols abound. The donkey. The Last Supper. The whip. The crown. The robe. The cross. The empty grave. The meaning in these symbols is intense and deep, yet it is the thing signified that gives them potency. There have been countless donkey rides and countless suppers. There has been torture and execution beyond number. The world is an orb of graves. But in the story of Jesus the commonplace and mundane are transfigured into the extraordinary and magnificent. The thing signified, gives them their meaning. Or as the Creed (another great symbol of our faith) expresses it,
Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.