How to Celebrate?/1: Signs and Symbols, Words and Actions (CCC 1145-1155)

Column on Liturgical Theology; Coordinator: Father Mauro Gagliardi

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Uwe Michael Lang*

ROME, APRIL 4, 2012 ( The Conciliar Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium defines sacred liturgy as “the exercise of the priestly function (munus) of Jesus Christ”, in which “the sanctification of man is signified through sensible signs and realized in the manner proper to each one of them” (n. 7). In the sacramental life of the Church, the “treasure hidden in the field”, of which Jesus speaks in the Gospel parable (Matthew 13:44), is made perceptible to the faithful through sacred signs. Whereas the essential elements of the sacraments – called form and matter in the terminology of Scholastic theology – are distinguished by a stupendous humility and simplicity, the liturgy, in as much as sacred action, surrounds them with rites and ceremonies that illustrate and make one understand better the great reality of the mystery. Thus a translation takes place into sensible elements and hence more accessible  to human knowledge, so that the Christian community, “sacris actionibus erudita – instructed by the sacred actions”, as an ancient prayer of the Sacramentario Gregoriano says[MG1] (cf. Missale Romanum, 1962, Collect of the Saturday after the First Sunday of the Passion), is disposed to receive divine grace.

Expressed in the fact that the sacramental celebration is “woven from signs and symbols”, is “the divine pedagogy of salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], n. 1145), already enunciated in an eloquent way by the Council of Trent. Recognizing that “human nature is such that it does not come easily to meditation of divine things without external devices”, the Church “uses lights, incense, vestments and many other elements transmitted by the Apostolic teaching and tradition, which put[MG2]  in evidence the majesty of such a great Sacrifice [the Holy Mass], and the minds of the faithful are attracted by these visible signs of religion  and piety, to the contemplation of lofty things, which are hidden in this Sacrifice” (Council of Trent, Session XXII, 1562, Doctrina de ss. Missae Sacrificio, c. 5, DS 1746).

Expressed in this reality is an anthropological need: “As a social being, man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures, and actions. The same holds true for his relationship with God” (CCC, n. 1146). The symbols and signs in the liturgical celebration belong to those material aspects that cannot be neglected. Man, a creature composed of soul and body, needs to use material things also in divine worship, because he is obliged to reach the spiritual realities through sensible signs. The internal expression of the soul, if it is genuine, seeks at the same time an external physical manifestation and, vice versa, the inner life is sustained by external acts, liturgical acts.

Many of the signs, as the gestures of prayer (open arms, joined hands, kneeling, going in procession, etc.), belong to the common heritage of humanity, as the different religious traditions attest. “The liturgy of the Church presupposes, integrates and sanctifies elements from creation and human culture, conferring on them the dignity of the signs of grace, of the new creation in Jesus Christ” (CCC, n. 1149).

Of key importance are the signs of the Covenant, “symbols of the great works done by God for his people”, among which are numbered “the imposition of hand, the sacrifices , and above all the Passover. The Church sees in these signs a prefiguring of the sacraments of the New Covenant” (CCC, n. 1150). Jesus himself makes use of these signs in his earthly ministry and gives them a new meaning, above all in the institution of the Eucharist. The Lord Jesus took the bread, broke it and gave it to his Apostles, thus carrying out a gesture that corresponds to a profound truth and expresses it in a sentient way. The sacramental signs, which were developed in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, continue this work of sanctification and, at the same time, “prefigure and anticipate the glory of heaven” (CCC, n. 1152).

In so far as the liturgy has its own language, which is expressed also in the signs and symbols, the understanding is no longer just intellectual but involves man totally, including his imagination, memory and, in a certain way, all five senses. Hence, the importance of the word must not be neglected: Word of God proclaimed  in the sacramental celebration and word of faith  that responds to it. Already Saint Augustine of Hippo highlighted that the “efficient cause” of the sacrament, namely that which makes of a material element the sign of a spiritual reality and adds to such an element the gift of divine grace, is the word of blessing made in the name of Christ by the minister of the Church. As the great Doctor of the Church writes in regard to Baptism: “Take away the word, and the water is neither more nor less than water. The word is added to the element, and there results the Sacrament (Accedit verbum ad elementum et fit Sacramentum)” (In Iohannis Evangelium tractatus, 80, 3).

In sum, the liturgical words and actions are inseparable and constitute the sacraments, through which the Holy Spirit carries out “the wonders’ of God proclaimed by the Word; makes present and communicates the Father’s work, fulfilled by the beloved Son” (CCC, n. 1155).

— — —

*Father Uwe Michael Lang, C.O., is an Official of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and Consultor of the Office of Liturgical celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation