Using Real Symbols

Real or Pretend?

The practice of using electric ‘push-button’ bulbs in place of votive candles and oil wicks inside plastic tubes instead of real altar candles seems to be increasingly common. I can understand why - they always look new and they don't drip wax on the altar cloth.

Part of the symbolism of candles, however, is that they burn down, giving us a sense of time passing, of the cycles of the liturgical year, of all the baptisms and funerals that have been celebrated whilst the wax has melted.

The burning candle as such is essentially sacrificial. It symbolises the paschal mystery, for in giving light, a wax candle consumes itself, just as Christ gave life through his death.

The worshipping environment reminds us of the paschal mystery of life, death and resurrection. That is why artificial flowers are not suitable for churches. Part of the symbolism of fresh flowers lies in the fact that they fade and die and that we need to appreciate their beauty while it lasts.

If symbols are not real, they are not honest. No artificial plant ever really passes for a real one, just as pressed hosts don’t really remind people of real bread.

The primary liturgical symbols demand something from us and call us to deeper faith. They are not decorative accoutrements but are present to support our ritual prayer. They must take priority over everything else in the worship space and anything added to the environment should point towards these symbols, not away from them.

The 2000 General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes several references to the importance of authenticity and quality in regard to objects used in liturgy:
“The meaning of the sign demands that the bread for the Eucharistic celebration truly have the appearance of food.” (#321)
“Care must be taken that the liturgical books, particularly the Book of the Gospels and the Lectionary, which are intended for the proclamation of the word of God and hence enjoy special veneration, are truly worthy, dignified and beautiful.” (#349)

Pressed hosts do not honestly look like real food. Disposable service booklets or sheets of paper are not worthy vehicles for the word of God, which lasts forever!

The document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship issued by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in 1978 contains some good advice about the use of symbols in liturgy. “Every word, gesture, movement, object, appointment must be real in the sense that it is our own. It must come from the deepest understanding of ourselves - not careless, phoney, counterfeit, pretentious, exaggerated, etc. (EAW #14)
The twin requirements of quality and appropriateness rule out “anything trivial and self-centred, anything fake, cheap or shoddy, pretentious or superficial” (EAW #22)

The keys to the use of symbol and environment that supports ritual are: highlight the primary symbols, use real rather than synthetic materials, and aim to acquire the best quality objects and most beautiful symbols the community can afford.

The quality and permanence of liturgical symbols must reflect our belief that “every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy #7) Anything less is an affront to the assembly and to the sacredness of the liturgy.


Elizabeth Harrington