The Significance of Signs and Symbols

Our Catholic faith is replete with beautiful signs and symbols that remind us of our heritage, teachings and traditions as followers of Jesus. A Christian sign is something that gives us direction by pointing beyond itself to a spiritual reality that we are not able to fully attain, perceive or understand. “Sign” comes from the Latin word signum, which means mark or characteristic. Signs are a means of grace and have several forms. Signs are reverent gestures such as a genuflection, bowing and kneeling. Each sacrament has a sign: water for baptism, bread and wine for Holy Communion, the sign of the cross on the forehead with chrism oil for Confirmation, words of forgiveness for Reconciliation, the vows that the couple address to each other for Matrimony, imposition of a bishop’s hands on the head for Holy Orders and anointing with holy oil of the sick for Anointing of the Sick. In the gospels, Jesus refers to his miracles as signs. There are signs on sacred vessels, and in religious art. Without Christian signs, our religion would lack sacred beauty and profound meaning. There are numerous holy mysteries to which we are guided by Christian signs.

A symbol is an object that represents or stands for something that is a sacred truth or mystery of our faith. These truths or mysteries are too profound to be ever fully understood. Symbols enable us to ponder an aspect of divine truth or a mystery of faith. A symbol can center our thoughts and prayers because it reminds us of the spiritual journey, the deep realities of our faith, and our eternal destination. “Symbol” comes from a Greek word that means “to bring together.” The sign of the cross is symbolic as a badge of faith that identifies us as Christians, and as a confirmation of our belief in the Triune God.

We are familiar with many symbols and signs. In all Catholic churches and in many Catholic homes there is a crucifix. It is a symbol of Jesus’ passion and death. Prayerfully gazing at a crucifix is a great help when dealing with pain, sorrow, sacrifice, problems and peril. We know we are not alone. The Sacred Heart, in statues or pictures, is a sign of Jesus’ eternal love for all humanity. The initials IHS or the word Chi-Rho may appear on liturgical vestments, sanctuary paraments, plaques, or sacred vessels. IHS is a short form of the Greek word for Jesus, and Chi-Rho is the English pronunciation of XP, the first two Greek letters of Christ’s name. The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is not visible, he took on the form of a dove and descended upon Jesus at his Jewish rite baptism. The dove also appears in the Old Testament; Genesis 6:8 reveals the account of Noah’s ark and the flood. When Noah wanted to see if there was dry land anywhere, he sent out a dove from the ark and the dove came back with a fresh olive leaf in its beak (Genesis 8­:11). The dove with the olive leaf was a sign of God’s forgiveness and peace. The fish is one of the oldest Christian symbols. The early Christians used it to identify themselves and each other in times of persecution. The Greek word for fish is ichthus which is an acronym for Jesus (Iesous CHristos THeou Uios Soter or Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Crossed keys are a symbol of the authority of the pope. In Matthew 16:18-19, Jesus said to Peter, “You are Peter and upon this rock (Peter) I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” Peter was the first pope and the power Jesus gave to him is shared by his successors. A scapular can show an association with a religious order, or be a sign of a mystery of faith. The best known scapulars are white, for the Dominican Order and the Holy Trinity, black for the Benedictine Order and the seven sorrows of Mary, red for the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood and the passion of Christ, and brown, the most well known of the scapulars, for the Carmelite Order and humility. Although they are part of a religious habit, they are more commonly seen in a small form. There are many signs for Mary, the Mother of God, a white lily, the mystical rose, a capital M, the color blue, and the fleur de lys.

Catholic signs and symbols can lead us to do good things. A picture of Mary will remind us to say a Hail Mary for the people involved when a siren is heard. A cross near the phone is a reminder to speak kindly to the caller, even bothersome telemarketers. A rosary held in the hand may alleviate frustration and worry during troubling situations or be calming and reassuring when we are in a hospital bed or other place that may cause fear. Gazing at a holy picture or a religious statue may defuse an altercation or help with a tedious task. Saying the chaplet of mercy can lessen stress during a diagnostic test or while waiting in a doctor’s office. It was a custom for students in Catholic grade schools to write JMJ, for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, at the top of their papers. People have received personal letters with DV written at the end of a sentence. DV means Deo Volente or God willing. DOM can also be an inscription, Deo Optimo Maximo, or To God, the best and greatest. The motto of the Jesuits can be noticed in many places: AMDG, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, for the greater glory of God, or to strive to give God more glory by doing what is most pleasing to him. The eye of God, also known as the eye of Providence, shows an eye often surrounded by rays of light and usually enclosed by a triangle. The three points of the triangle represent God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the rays of light stand for holiness and divinity. This symbol represents the eye of God watching over humanity. These helps toward holiness are also reminders of divine assistance when temporal concerns impede the existence of God and heaven.

The Other End

What Christian articles do we wear on our person or have in our homes? What are the reasons for their presence? If they are used to ward off iniquity, bring good luck, or protect us from evil, we need to take a closer look. Religious articles are not magic objects, amulets, or protective entities. They are reminders that lead us to God and our eternal destiny. It is bewildering to see a religious article and a talisman together. The Italian horn, worn as a pagan protection against the “evil eye” is not equal to the Miraculous Medal, a sign of Mary’s love, and they should never be worn on the same chain. Trusting in a charm instead of in God’s providence is against the first and greatest commandment.

Today there is an ever-growing number of things that can pull us away from God and the importance of living a Christian life. Catholic superstitious beliefs are common. They can be simple answers to complex issues, limit faith to personal pious practices, be a channel for rewards, or give us a sense of control. Are certain repetitious prayers said to strengthen our dependence on God, or are they mindless rote mumblings to get something special? Is the rosary hanging in our car a reminder to say it, or a sign that we will have no accidents? Does the cross we wear remind us to live as Christ’s disciples, or protect us from harm? If we say a rosary at seven in the morning, is this a beloved prayer, or an assurance that our day will be pleasant? Do we pray to a specific saint for a job that will coincide with God‘s plan, or for a job that is “perfect” for us? Do we leave a Bible open in our living room to remind us to read it, or to protect our home from robbers? Do we wear a brown scapular as a sign of our devotion to Mary, or is it our ticket to heaven? If we base our faith on doing things to get things, we only focus on one attribute of God, a provider.

Christian living depends less on what we do in a present time of need, and more on walking forward in a life-sustaining relationship with God. This includes daily prayer, receiving the sacraments, finding beauty in our faith and helping others. We need to use religious items with respect and as reminders to stay close to God and strive for holiness, especially when sickness, trouble and other vicissitudes come along.

In our society, it is a significant temptation to idolize what is not God. This means we honor and revere something or someone in place of God, like money, cars, clothes, movie stars, athletes, popular singers, or current trends. If we place any thing or any person above God, it can easily lead to an occult demonic orientation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us wise advice: “All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.” (2116)

The word spirituality has many interpretations. Although the primary definition is our relationship with God, it can also mean concerns of the soul, a description of a specific religion, or the charism of a religious order. Today, potpourri spirituality, a mix of beliefs from different philosophies and religions with a sprinkle of Christian beliefs, is quite popular. The practices and beliefs of potpourri spirituality that are chosen usually contribute to a feel-good mentality. However, these beliefs can be opposing and, if given much thought, can cause confusion and discord. People who are most influenced by potpourri spirituality may be easily influenced by evil or insidious things that lead to evil, are easy to fool, have little knowledge of Christian doctrine, have a poorly developed conscience, or have difficulty discerning right from wrong. They can also be pleasant, charming, personable or captivating. They include those who “are spiritual, but not religious,” the “nones,” and the many followers within new age movements, Actually, new age refers to forms of spirituality that draw from old systems of knowledge or philosophies such as Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Zen, Gnosticism, and other schools of thought.

New age and other potpourri teachings cover a wide range of beliefs: God the Father is an impersonal entity, an energy field or force, the universe, a particular extension or component of the cosmos, or the divine within people that make them God. Jesus his Son is equal to any founder of other religions, a wise man, a cosmic force or an avatar. Reincarnation, spirit guides, channeling, animism, clairvoyance and astral planes are popular. If a person wants something he will think it, and it will happen. Religion and ethical questions are relative to one’s own truth, feelings and experiences. Finding happiness through health, popularity, wealth and success are promoted. There is no concept of sin, just imperfect knowledge. Suffering is seen as bad karma, self-imposed, or a failure to harness one’s own resources. Potpourri spirituality, especially new age thinking, has insidiously permeated our culture, not only from so-called therapies such as reiki, shiatsu, healing touch, crystals, and yoga, but also through widely used words and concepts that have become part of our lexicon, such as mantras, mindfulness, self-fulfillment, self-empowerment, self-glorification, and self-realization. Whatever happened to humility, self-effacement, and sacrificial love?

The Paranormal

That which lies beyond the natural realm can be fascinating. Paranormal contrasting words are beyond scientific understanding. Supernatural good has corresponding preternatural evil. We can respond to grace or give in to temptation. There is light and dark, holy cards and tarot cards, blessings and curses, the sacred and the profane, worship and scorn, virtuous saints and hardened sinners, or actions of an angelic or of a demonic nature. Signs and symbols of good bring us peace and harmony. Signs and symbols of evil can be strangely appealing but result in conflict and discord. The devil’s snares are all around us and are used in many ways, for example, in witchcraft and occult rituals. They invoke evil spirits and demonic actions. Signs and symbols of evil are seen on jewelry, buildings, clothing, walls, vehicles and tattoos. Their meanings may be unknown to those who make use of them. Christian symbols may even be interpreted as pagan or satanic symbols. An upside down cross symbolizes the way Peter chose to be crucified, or could be a sign of humility in faith. In popular culture the upside-down cross is a sign for satanist sentiment, rebellion against social or political power, demonic activity or overall evilness.

There are many signs and symbols of evil. Definitions can vary or change over time. The inverted pentagram attracts sinister forces because it overturns the proper order of things, stresses personal power, and is a reminder that people can control their fate. The Leviathan cross, also known as Satan’s cross, is an antichrist symbol, is associated with the fire and brimstone of hell, and emphasizes that humans have their own center of balance and truth. The evil eye, or the eye of Lucifer, is popular in many cultures. The evil eye is a malicious glare that places a curse, or other misfortune, on an unaware person. The eye of Lucifer is used in divination, hexes, or psychic control. Cults can have their own questionable and secret signs and symbols. Certain cults are associations of which to be wary if they are a group of people having religious beliefs or practices that are strange or sinister or are living in an unconventional manner. They usually have an authoritarian charismatic leader, and can be extreme, dangerous or false. Some cults incorporate elements of our Catholic religion into their rituals, including elements that are in error. Although Catholics do not worship Mary or the saints, there are deviant forms of worshiping Mary and the saints.

The prince of darkness can beckon through what looks sacred as well as what is strange, such as cherubic angels, religious images, malformed crucifixes or fairies, elves, female configured images of God, or ordinary or misshapen unicorns and goat’s heads. Hidden evil is everywhere and we need to watch for it, especially in unlikely places. If we are not careful, it is easy to fall into evil practices such as black magic or sorcery and the deeper we go into it the harder it is to get out. There are temptations to tame occult powers, to place them at our service and to have a supernatural power over others, even for the sake of restoring their health. Satanic promoters, their teachings, signs and symbols, entice excitement and rewards for those who follow the prince of darkness. However, we remember Satan is the father of lies. Where does lying, that is so common in today’s society, originate? Current loud, dissonant music, with a jarring bass beat, may be “cool” or popular, but at a deeper level it is disturbing and nerve-wracking. Any practice that is divisive and confusing can be described as the devil’s format.

When we sin, it estranges us from God, and hurts others and ourselves. In today’s society sin has been watered down, rarely mentioned, or seen as a joke. One very sound way of decreasing the effects of evil and recognizing our sinfulness is to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly. This sacrament is a most beautiful expression of God’s love and mercy. We are forgiven, strengthened and reconciled with God. When we receive this sacrament worthily, it will aid us in clarifying signs of evil. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation we give Jesus the chance to do the thing that he most enjoyed doing in his earthly life — taking away the sins that hurt us and our relationships and healing our souls.

Triumph

If we are overwhelmed by fear, we must remember that somehow God is working in our frightening situation even though we may not feel his presence. God works in our mess, whatever it is. Jesus said many times to be not afraid. When we feel fear gripping our mind or heart, we can say this lovely prayer from Heart of the Nation: For your help when I am in pain, for hope greater than despair — Jesus, I trust in you. For comfort when I am lonely, for happiness though it seems far away — Jesus, I turn to you. For direction at every crossroad, for faith when I am afraid — Jesus, I turn to you. For forgiveness when I fail, for peace that is your gift — Jesus, I turn to you. For openness to the fullness of grace, for a heart overflowing with love — Jesus, I turn to you. Amen.

Romans 12:21 says, “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.” If someone says something evil to us, hard as it may be, we strive to smile and say something uplifting or say, “God loves you and so do I.” The person will not know how to react to that, and we have overcome evil. We have gone on the offensive with love. God’s love is greater than our problems or difficulties. His love takes us outside of ourselves, so we can be channels of his love to others. When this happens, we can see him more easily in everyone, even those who have hurt us.

In the face of evil, we remember that we were created by God for good. Jesus tells us to bless those who curse us and to live in peace and harmony with others as much as we can. To counteract evil, we must live gospel teachings. Francis of Assisi said we might be the only Bible someone ever reads. It seems that God asks us to clear a path through mucky immorality to make redemption a possibility for others. Whether a person changes or not is between the individual and God. We do our part by living God’s mercy, love and goodness, as best as we can, in our broken world. We tangibly express the love of Jesus with action.

There are many people involved in horrible evils, and our primary obligation is to pray for them. We refrain from constant brooding over evil elements in people and situations. Rather, we pray, do what we can, and leave the rest in the hands of God. We do not know the power of one sincerely said Hail Mary. Prayer helps us align our hearts with Jesus’ heart. Through prayer we come to understand what God wants us to do. Through prayer, the Holy Spirit will show us what goodness he wants to release through us. When darkness surrounds us, the Lord provides a path toward the light. Even our suffering can be used for good. In the words of John Paul II, “In bringing about the redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of redemption.” In Romans 5:20 Paul the apostle says that where sin abounds, grace super-abounds. That makes sense when we think about the cross. On the cross of Jesus the greatest evil occurred: humans tortured and killed the Son of God. But from that greatest evil came the greatest good — the salvation of the human race. Evil does not have the final or definitive word. God does.

We are privileged to have tangible signs and symbols of our faith around us. We should never take our sacred signs and symbols for granted, because they are a reminder to be good, do good and love God. They are part of our identity as Christians and remind us to praise God. Augustine wrote, “Our meditation in this present life should be in the praise of God, for the eternal exultation of life hereafter will be the praise of God, and none can become fit for the future life who has not practiced himself for it now.” The praise of God is a prayer that comes from the heart, as are prayers of contrition, thanksgiving and supplication. The good use of our precious and beautiful signs and symbols are a means by which we praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Praise to the Holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise:

In all his words most wonderful, most sure in all his ways.

O loving wisdom of our God! When all was sin and shame,

A second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.

O wisest love! that flesh and blood, which did in Adam fail,

Should strive afresh against the foe, should strive and should prevail.

And that a higher gift than grace should flesh and blood refine,

God’s presence and his very self, and essence all divine.

O generous love! that he, who smote in man for man the foe,

The double agony in man for man should undergo.

And in the garden secretly, and on the cross on high,

Should teach his brethren, and inspire to suffer and to die.

Praise to the Holiest in the height, and in the depth be praise:

In all his words most wonderful; most sure in all his ways.

~ John Henry Newman

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns. Her latest book is Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. You can find her reflections online at contemplativechristianityorg.wordpress.com.

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