Who Needs Symbols?

Steven Greydanus responds to a woman who dislikes pageantry and symbolism as practiced by the Catholic Church:

Ritual and ceremony are not contrived and unnecessary, except in the sense that all human culture and experience is contrived and unnecessary. Wedding rings, shaking hands, Christmas trees, birthday cakes, napkin on the left, pallbearers, tuck the children in at night, floral arrangements in church or at a wedding or a funeral, Easter eggs, “Hail to the Chief,” bride and groom cut the cake, stand up for the judge, mortar boards at graduation, hold the door for the lady, kiss each other hello and goodbye and good morning and good night — none of these are pragmatically necessary, and all of it is how we human beings order our lives — if not with these symbols, then with something else.

In ordinary life, what the particular symbols and gestures are often enough doesn’t matter. But to be Christian is to believe, first of all, that the Creator of the world happened to make contact with our race within the context of a specific cultural milieu, in a specific symbolic world sovereignly chosen and carefully shaped and guided for millennia by His Spirit. From circumcision to Passover, from the annual chanting of the psalms of ascents on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to the vestments of the Aaronic priesthood, the world into which Jesus was born was full of pageantry and symbolism.

And then, when our Creator favored our race by taking on our flesh and offering us so great salvation, He left us with symbols and gestures chosen by Himself and not matters of human convention. He took bread and broke it, and wine, and pronounced them to be His body and blood. He commissioned His disciples to go about immersing people in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit fell on Pentecost, He did not proceed to liberate the people from pageantry and symbolism: Three thousand people were ceremonially dunked in water on the first day alone, and they immediately proceeded to devote themselves to the business with the breaking of the bread, along with the apostles’ teaching, fellowship and the prayers (Acts 2:42), particularly on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7).

The Lord left His church in the care of apostles who went about laying their hands on chosen men and appointing them to continue the ministry of the church. The New Testament also mentions anointing with oil and laying on of hands for the sick. The Gospels record set words given by Jesus: This is my body; in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; Our Father who art in Heaven. Given by Jesus, not made up by us.

The book of Revelation describes pageantry and symbolism even in the worship of Heaven itself: thrones, crowns, robes, antiphonal exclamations, prostration. Why should the twenty-four elders not only fall down before the throne of God, but also throw their crowns at His feet, of all things? Does God need or require such lavish outward gestures of worship and self-abnegation? No. But we creatures of bodies and senses and imagination find in such outward acts and symbols the crown and completion of the worship in our hearts.

(Mr. Greydanus is a film critic and the proprietor of decentfilms.com.)

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