The Power of Symbols

The storming of the Bastille on 14 July had more symbolic significance than anything else for the course of the French Revolution, but even today it will be recalled in France with great republican fervour. We all have our own symbols. I ‘knew’ before I came here what a powerful symbol the American flag is for the people of the U.S.A., but seeing it proudly displayed on porches and in car lots, on all manner of buildings, both public and private, has brought home just how intense the focus on it is. I’m not sure we have anything really comparable in England, where no one gets very excited about anything except perhaps cricket and football, but the Church has an abundance of symbols, most of them simple and direct, like light, water, oil.

From time to time one hears someone saying that the Church needs to ‘update’ her use of symbols; that oil, for example, no longer has the significance it once had for people living in the Near East or around the Mediterranean. It’s true that oil is no longer used in quite the same way or for the same purposes, but that does not empty the symbol of its power. The life of the Church is expressed through sign and symbol: it is a language we all learn gradually as we come to see the impossibility of expressing through ordinary human words the extraordinary divine action in our lives. Symbols are powerful things and shouldn’t be underestimated.