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Explaining Biblical Themes :
Signs and Symbols (part 1)

Cuthbert cross

Signs And Symbols
(Part 1) 

Having recently been an observer of the important rite of passage of First Communion in the lives of young Roman Catholic boys and girls in a small historical Spanish hill town, the place of signs and symbols in religion began to exercise my mind. 

Signs are primarily shorthand in pictures but they can lead on to ideas. Symbols express ideas through pictures, objects, actions and stories; ideas which cannot be explained in just a few words. Because they suggest an idea rather than just standing for facts and figures they leave room for people to add their own understanding.  

Symbols can be private - something eg a cuddly toy or a ring, which means a lot to its owner and can be a symbol of comfort or love. Symbols can also be public. A flag can express ideas of loyalty to a country or cause; clothes can represent a particular job - policeman, fireman, member of the armed forces and so on; academic robes indicate learning, legal robes justice. 

Natural elements are symbolic in most world religions. Water is used as a symbol of life, of peace and tranquillity, of cleansing, of new beginnings. In Baptism water is used to show that faith in God washes away wrong intention and action and makes a new start possible. It also marks the beginning of a person's life as a Christian and is a sign of belonging to the family of Christ. At the Baptism of a baby parents or Godparents promise to help the child grow up as a Christian until they are old enough to confirm promises made on their behalf. 

Light has come to be a symbol of knowledge, truth, understanding and goodness. It is a powerful religious symbol. Light is used to express God's power, knowledge and love. We speak of Jesus as the Light of the World who dispels the world's dark influences. 

The prophets of the Old Testament used symbolic stories, objects, actions and pictures when delivering what they believed was God's message to individuals and the whole people of Israel.  

Nathan told David a story to reveal how he knew David had Uriah put in the forefront of a battle so that he could have Uriah's wife Bathsheba for himself 

2 Samuel chapter 12, verses 1 - 7 The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. "Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him." David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity." Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 

Elijah cast his mantle over Elisha to indicate that he would be his successor 

1 Kings chapter 19, verse19 So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. 

Amos used the picture of a plumb-line to indicate that God was measuring and judging his people and finding them wanting in social justice 

Amos chapter 7, verse 7 This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb, with a plumb line in his hand 

Jeremiah broke an earthenware jug to warn that God would deal likewise with his wayward nation if they did not return to keeping his law in deed as well as observance. (). 

Jeremiah chapter 19, verses 1 - 11 This is what the LORD says: "Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. Take along some of the elders of the people and of the priests and go out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, near the entrance of the Potsherd Gate. There proclaim the words I tell you, and say, `Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods that neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal--something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter. `In this place I will ruin n the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. I will devastate this city and make it an object of scorn; all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff because of all its wounds. I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another's flesh during the stress of the siege imposed on them by the enemies who seek their lives.' Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching, and say to them, `This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter's jar is smashed and cannot be repaired.' 

Jesus was the master of symbolic story when he taught in parables. 

Symbols are to be seen in our churches and play an important part in our worship. Fuller consideration will be given to these in - Signs and Symbols (Part 2)

Christian Education Committee, 2004


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