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Explaining Biblical Themes :
Signs And Symbols (part 2)

Cuthbert cross

Signs And Symbols
(Part 2) 

Symbols alert, remind, explain, help to express the inexpressible, express feelings too deep for words, and teach. (See also Signs and Symbols (Part 1)

In the book of Acts written by Luke we read that at the Feast of Pentecost - a Jewish festival initially a harvest festival which became associated with the giving of the Law on Sinai - of the coming of the Holy Spirit of God to the apostles. This coming was symbolised by a sound like a rushing wind and the appearance of tongues of fire above their heads 

Acts chapter 2, verse 1 - 4 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues n as the Spirit enabled them. 

Moses experienced a bush on fire which was not consumed by the fire when he received power from God to free his people 

Exodus chapter 3, verses 1 - 2 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  

The badge of the Church of Scotland is a burning bush and its Latin motto, significantly for the present time, means "and yet it was not consumed".  

Fire is power on the move. It can give movement, heat and light; it can be destructive; it can be cleansing; it can be deceptively still. Firefighters learn to sense this stillness and prepare themselves for the "mighty, rushing wind" which presages the burst of powerfully over-whelming living flame which will follow. 

Whatever we believe actually happened in that quiet room where the apostles were still and at prayer, they emerged with new power to bring healing and the light of Christ to a society in need of cleansing. That power is even now available for Christ's people if we would ask for the Holy Spirit to come upon us. 

The flame of a candle can be a tribute and memorial. In a church it symbolises the presence of God; Jesus as the light of the world; goodness in a world of darkness. 

When after five or six years of training for the ministry of Word and Sacrament ie to teach and preach the Word of God; baptise and celebrate Holy Communion, a minister will be ordained to that calling. As a sign that that empowerment comes from God the new minister will wear two white linen bands symbolising the tongues of fire which appeared above the apostles' heads, and a preaching scarf symbolically embroidered. An academic hood and gown are worn to indicate the learning which enables him or her to preach with authority. Historically cassocks and the colour black were worn to make the personality of the minister recede so that nothing would detract from the preaching of the Word. Even black gloves were sometimes worn. 

Colour is used in the Pulpit Fall and Bible markers to mark the mood of the seasons of the Church's year. Purple signifies preparation and penance and so is used during Advent and Lent (no colour on Good Friday or Saturday); white or gold celebration and rejoicing at Christmas, Easter, weddings and sacraments; green re-commitment and growth in Christ on Sundays after Pentecost (but First Trinity Sunday and Sunday of Christ the King - white); red the fire and power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, ordinations and confirmation. 

Intertwined Greek letters or a cross are regularly embroidered on the pulpit fall. The cross used may have a special significance like our own St Cuthbert's cross:

IHS are the first three letters of Jesus. H is the Greek script for E.
XP the first three letters of Christ. P is Greek for R.
AO the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet - God is the first and the last  

Two symbolic actions are the laying on of hands and anointing with oil. 

That a minister has been called by the Holy Spirit of God to his or her ministry is recognised by the laying on of hands by Presbytery ministers and elders at his or her ordination.  

That Jesus healed by touch and the laying on of hands 

Matthew chapter 9, verse 29 - 30 Then he touched their eyes and said, "According to your faith will it be done to you"; and their sight was restored.  

Matthew chaper 8, verse 3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately he was cured n of his leprosy 

Mark chapter 1, verses 30 - 31 Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. 

Luke chapter 4, verse 40 When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them 

This is the authority by which those involved in the Healing Ministry lay on hands to bring the healing power of God's love to those who seek it. There is biblical authority for anointing with oil as a practice of blessing and empowerment. Jesus spoke of himself as the anointed servant  

Luke chapter 4, verses 18 - 19"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  

The Epistle of James mentions the use of oil in prayers for healing 

James chapter 5, verses14 - 15 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 

Making the sign of the Cross with oil on the forehead is still practised during the blessing of healing for those who wish it. 

All symbols are aids to worship but none more important than the bread and wine of Communion "set apart from all common uses to this holy use and mystery" to aid us to commune with Christ, the family of our own congregation, Christians everywhere and the souls already in full communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

Christian Education Committee, 2004


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