Friday, January 08, 2016

Symbols, signs, sacraments and sales pitches

Meditating on the three miracles of the Epiphany has brought me to consider the relationship that we have with signs and symbols. The Revelation of the Epiphany is threefold.

First we have the Magi, the famous wise men from the East who are led to Our Lord by the famous star of Bethlehem. Historically, it is unclear what this star is. Some would have it that it is a true astronomical event, a supernova or comet for example; others would have it that it is an astrological event, a conjunction of Saturn or Jupiter; others would have it that the star has merely a mythological existence. Personally, I favour the latter, after all, astrology was well studied at the time by all kinds of "wise men". We have also the famous Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh on which St Gregory has this to say:
The wise men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is the fitting gift to a King, frankincense is offered in sacrifice to God, and with myrrh are embalmed the bodies of the dead. By the gifts, therefore, which they presented unto Him, the wise men set forth three things concerning Him unto Whom they offered them; by the gold, that He was King; by the frankincense, that He was God; and by the myrrh, that He was to die. There are some heretics who believe Him to be God, but confess not His Kingly dominion over all things; these offer unto Him frankincense, but refuse Him gold. There are some others who admit that He is King, but deny that He is God; these present unto Him gold, but will not give Him frankincense. There are some other heretics who profess that Christ is both God and King, but not that He took a dying nature; these offer Him gold and frankincense, but not myrrh for the Manhood. Let us, however, present gold unto the new-born Lord, acknowledging His universal Kingship; let us offer unto Him frankincense, confessing that He Who hath been made manifest unto us in time, is God before time was; let us give unto Him myrrh, believing that He Who cannot suffer as touching His Godhead, was made capable of death as touching the manhood which He shareth with us. There is also another signification in this gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold is a type of wisdom; as saith Solomon, In the mouth of the wise abideth a treasure to be desired. Frankincense, which is burnt in honour of God, is a figure of prayer; witness the words of the Psalmist [Ps. cxl. 2]: Let my prayer be set forth as incense before thee. By myrrh is represented the putting to death of the body; as where the holy Church saith of her labourers who strive for God even unto death My hands dropped with myrrh. (10th Homily on the Gospels, from the Readings for Benedictine Matins)
The second revelation is the Baptism of Christ in the river Jordan and thus preparing the waters of Baptism for use as the matter in the Sacrament.

The third is the miracle in the wedding at Cana of Gallilee in which Our Lord demonstrates His power to transform matter and prefigures the Mass as the wedding feast of the Lamb.

We have here signs and wonders which are central to our Christian Faith. We have signs within signs and symbols within miracles, all of which point to the deep truth of God With Us. This is something on which Christians will agree. These signs point directly to the person of Christ.

As Catholics, our relationship with signs and symbols is markedly different from the perceptions of the non-Catholic. For a thing to be a sign means that it possesses a property to direct the understanding to a related thing. For all Christians in whatever service they have of Eucharist, Holy Communion, Lord's Supper or Mass, the bread and wine are certainly signs of Christ's body and blood. The whole liturgy is a sign of the last supper and of the love of Christ in His preparation to die for us. Of course, the question has to be what nature of the relationship between the sign and the thing signified really is. Zwingli would have it that the nature of the relationship is purely intellectual, the Catholic Faith teaches that the nature of the relationship is physical, and real. Others have variations upon this theme. However, all are statements about the relationship between the sign and the thing signified.

One of the reasons I hold so fast to the Catholic teaching of (not necessarily Romish) Transubstantiation is that it makes sense of God's power to do things of which human beings can only imitate at a much lower level. I preached below that while human beings can name things only after the fact, God brings them into being by calling their name. That is the fact of Creation. If Christ is truly God then His "this is my body" causes bread to become His body, ratifying St John vi's "indeed". Names are signs, they point to the thing they objectify. It might be a false inference to generalize this and say that God's signs are more than just intellectual, but also real and physical, but this is the evidence of Our Lord's ministry. He says, "be healed" and people are healed; He says that a girl is not dead but only sleeping, and she is. The words, symbols and signs of Our Lord's ministry have a habit of taking on reality: that can only be done by the Creator. The reason is that our reality is only a pale imitation of the true reality of God. Our reality, to Him, can be compared to the reality of Harry Potter compared with J. K. Rowling. The actor Daniel Radcliffe gives Harry a reality like ours, and yet, Harry Potter is still less real than we are. Yet, Mr Radcliffe is the vehicle by which Harry Potter's reality becomes our own. We can really see this in the way that some people treat Mr Radcliffe as actually being Harry Potter and have a really hard time when he plays Victor Frankenstein. Confusing actors with their characters is an unfortunate confusion of realities.

Signs and symbols work at different levels of reality.  For Zwingli, the reality of the bread and wine is that of this world,  the thing that they signify is the body and blood of Christ, but there is no change in the reality of the bread and wine. The relationship, as I wrote earlier, is purely intellectual, on the same level as ideas and concepts. The two realities are different and disjoint. A sacrament, on the other hand also has two realities, our reality and the reality of God. The difference here is that our reality is absolutely contingent on that of God's. Without God's reality, there cannot be our reality. It is interesting that the Greek for Creed is Symbol. The words we say in the three Creeds take on a deeper reality if we are prepared to live the faith we proclaim therein.

Catholics, then, believe in the continual, objective action of God in Creation, that symbols can attain a reality that gives greater substance to ours.Yet, Catholics must be prepared to sympathise with the non-Catholic. Yes, of course our beliefs are substantively different but both are trying to explore the reality that we know (whether by gnosis or epistis) and come to the Salvation of Mankind as Christ. The substantive differences will mean that we walk apart, but an exploration of Reality with one's hand in God's means that we all have the opportunity for salvation. Differences of theology can indeed be occasions of walking apart, but never occasions of demonization.

This brings me to another point I'd like to explore and, as usual, I find myself on similar intellectual territory as my confrère, Fr Anthony Chadwick who is contemplating the "business" aspect of the Church. Like him, I find advertising and branding tedious. Branding, with the plethora of logos, soundbites, buzz-words and slogans brings us back to the way in which people can confuse the sign with the thing signified. The numbers in Church may show that Church is not popular, but not that it is not relevant. The wickedness of Christians may show the hypocrisy within the Church, but do not show that She is either wrong about God or that God Himself is a wicked being. At each stage, there is a confusion of the lesser reality with the greater.
A church may indeed advertise itself to say "Hello, here we are!" but it will paint a static picture of itself - all empty glitz and glamour. The best way to say, "Hello" is for a Christian to grasp another's hand and shake it warmly with a smile. I am a firm believer that the Faith lived actively needs no advertisement, but demonstrates an integrity that an advert cannot. God will not allow His Church's light to be put under a bushel. She will shine from the hilltop to all lands.

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