Eucharistic Theology, Part 5: Symbols
Whenever I hear a priest speak about the Eucharist, he usually says, “It’s not just a symbol.” What he means is, “It’s not a sign.” Symbols are not the same thing as signs. Signs convey information, but they don’t contain within themselves the information they convey. For example, the outline of a wheelchair indicates that a room is handicap-accessible, but the sign itself does not contain a wheelchair.
By contrast, symbols both point away from themselves and in themselves contain that to which they point. For example, our bodies are symbols of ourselves. The American flag symbolizes the United States. Burning the American flag is offensive because it’s not only or merely a bit of material that’s being burned, it’s our nation, our homeland, our values. Thus, something can’t be “just a symbol.” If it were, it wouldn’t be a symbol.
Symbols help us transcend the physical world, maintain our connection with others, and express our role within particular groups. When I hug a friend, my symbolic gesture conveys care, warmth, affection. The hug also maintains the nature of that friendship and expresses my willingness to “keep in touch:” to share myself and to be attentive to my friend’s needs and concerns.
However, symbols like a flag, a dollar bill, and a hug are human constructs, symbols we ourselves have made. The Eucharist is not a human construct; it is God’s gift. At the Last Supper Jesus made himself the basis of our Eucharistic celebration. By changing the meaning of that meal, Jesus ultimately gave us new symbols and symbolic actions. All of our sacraments are thus based on Christ.
The Eucharistic celebration is full of symbols, doorways into hidden dimensions of reality: the priest, the sign of the cross, the paschal candle, the Book of the Gospels and the proclamation of the word, the sign of peace, eating and drinking, and, above all, the consecrated bread and wine. These and other symbols and symbolic actions lead us into unity, compassion, forgiveness, peace, healing, justice, joy. In other words, our liturgical symbols help us recognize and become part of God’s kingdom. The challenging part is to keep living in this kingdom once our Eucharistic celebration has ended, to go forth as living symbols of Christ’s presence for those who haven’t yet become part of his shared and eternal world.