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The Power of Signs, Symbols and Ritual

A Rationale for Religious Ritual When the Rationality of Words Fail Us

A pdf version of the the commentary to read and print is here.


“Every religion makes use of two feet: faith on one side and ritual on the other. “ – Carl Jung


A few weeks ago I turned on a cable news channel to see a political commentator droning on in an endless cycle of banter with other talking heads. Most notably, however, was the black cross-shaped smudge on his forehead that was an unavoidable distraction to whatever point he was trying to make. Then it occurred to me as I muttered to myself, “Oh, it must be Ash Wednesday!”

The beginning of the penitential / liturgical season of Lent represents an annual pilgrimage that culminates in the holiest observance in the Christian faith tradition, Easter. Along the way, over the centuries, there have been rich traditional practices that have been accumulated and punctuated by all kinds of signs, symbols and rituals.  All of it has been done in an effort to make sense out of those meddlesome human faults and foibles we have, and have to deal with; along with some kind of constructed theological rationale meant to be redemptive in ways none of us can ultimately know for sure, but only wish, hope or imagine.

In the quarter century I practiced parish ministry as an Episcopal priest and pastor to a wonderful group of good-hearted people, we utilized many of the standard liturgical practices of the Lenten season in that one tradition; while adapting and adding quite a few of our own; in order to try to speak without words about our lives and all the “little deaths’ we die along the way.

Upon arrival each week, worshippers would be given a stick and a stone; as an opening prayer bid participants “leave behind the mask of daily dread.” The stones were meant to symbolize the personal burdens each participant longed to lay down. The sticks represented our acknowledgment of the complicit ways in which we collectively construct crosses of crucifixion in a world in which we seem to incessantly do away with the prophets and sages who – at the risk of our displeasure – would reveal the secrets of our hearts.

Mid-service, congregants would process forward to drop their sticks and stones in what still remains my own sarcophagus-shaped pine coffin I built when I was a relatively young man. It would be perched upright near the altar. The burdens and baggage would be laid down before receiving the sacramental signs of bread and wine; symbolizing the restoration of life in whatever myriad of interpretations religious types have applied to that familiar ritual.

On Good Friday, a brittle, and very dead Christmas tree that had been saved for months in order to stand vigil outside the church entrance would be stripped of it’s branches and fashioned into a cross. It would be placed prominently beside the pine box that was now nearly overflowing with sticks and stones. A large cross that hung over the altar would be draped with a black shroud.

At the end of the Good Friday liturgy that mainly consisted of reading one of the canonical gospel accounts of the Jesus’ crucifixion, the pipe organ would lead the congregational singing of J.S. Bach’s stately hymn, “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded.” But at the same time, the magnificent music would be nearly drowned out by a cacophony of noise; as the stones were shoveled into metal pails, together with sticks dumped into baskets, to lead a recession out of the church to a plaza where everyone would gather in a symbolic circle, the ancient symbol of the eternal.

While the stones were hauled off to be forever buried in a field, the sticks that were stacked in a heap in the center of the circle would be set ablaze. Minutes would pass, as leaping flames sent sparks flying up into the dark night sky, as faces were illuminated by the flickering light. After a long period of silence, a single traditional prayer would be uttered that included this line:

“Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new ….”  [BCP, p.280]

The bonfire would slowly subside to glowing embers, as people disbursed in silence or hushed tones. The next morning, the ashes to be scooped up and saved for Ash Wednesday the following year, with the same ritual cycle repeated all over again. Meanwhile, on Easter morning, cut flowers from home gardens would be brought to adorn the barren tree cross. And, in a few days, the cross with wilted flowers would be tossed out.

This long description of one religious tradition’s rituals is all meant to pose a simple question: Take away the sticks and stones, bread and wine, the pine coffin, fire and ash, and a dead tree adorned with flowers, and what have you got? Words.  Just words.

And meanwhile, here I am, a professional word merchant, using the power of words to try to express the wordless power of symbolsin action, which are otherwise known as ritual!

The late Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, wrote of “natural symbols,” derived from the unconscious contents of the psyche. Such was the stuff of his extensive work in dream interpretation. But he also spoke of “cultural symbols” used to express what he called “eternal truths.” These are those enduring truths about which various religious traditions strive to speak, without words.

Because humankind has employed signs, symbols and ritual to speak about the human experience when human language fails to adequately express what we’re trying to say, none of this should be considered new, startling or revelatory. At the same time, it seems important to periodically remember the plethora of symbolic imagery and ritual practices that operate in our so-called secular culture; along with the interpreted values they express and represent.

In this regard, two things are readily apparent: First, the importance and presence of whatever bears witness and testifies to the power of signs and symbols is certainly not limited to forms of religious expression. Symbolic expression is employed everywhere, all the time. Take, for example, a national flag that can bear stars and stripes on the one hand, or a hammer and sickle on the other. Both are instantly identifiable. But furthermore, what powerlies behind the symbolic image in the mind’s eye?

As a further exercise, take a look at the following symbols. First, see how quickly you can simply identify them:       

Now go back and identify whatever emotional power each symbol might generate for you individually. What value or meaning might you apply or associate with such a symbol that you may have adapted or interpreted for yourself? The point of the exercise is to simply be aware of the power and presence of such operative symbols; beyond simple identification.

Though I’ve never played polo in my life, I occasionally wear a shirt emblazoned with the image of a horse and rider. Yet another one of my shirts has my three initials monogrammed on the shirt pocket. Once, when someone inquired about it, I told them it was so I could remember who I was.  One way or another, symbols express one’s self-identity.

More than mere consumption, the signs and symbols associated with consumerism are all about the expression of self-identity and personal values.  Status symbols are referred to as status symbols for a reason. But here’s the thing: Values define belief systems; and, in this sense, the same could be said of both political and religious values, as well.  Identify these symbols, along with any emotional / values quotient:

The GOP’s symbolic elephant, for example, has nothing to do with one’s affinity for pachyderms, but rather a general political philosophy; where many Republicans these days wring their hands, dismayed over their belief certain core values have been abandoned.

Finally, go through the same exercise as before, first identifying as many symbols as you can that either represents a religious tradition, or were derived from one of them:

Now what interpretative power, values and meaning lies behindall these symbolic expressions?

The power behind the symbol of a cross atop a spire, or a star of David perched atop a synagogue, or a star inside a crescent moon atop a mosque represent a myriad of diverse values and beliefs; even within each religious tradition. Signs and symbols can cause as much disagreement among those who embrace them as their intended purpose is meant to express a unified identity.

When I see an ultra-conservative TV news commentator rail against the “radical left,” while wearing a shiny gold cross around her neck, I have an almost visceral reaction; both because of my own political beliefs, as well as a wholly different interpretation of the gospel tradition we presumably share. If nothing else, the resulting chaos only serves to remind us how powerful symbols can be.

While Jung referred to cultural symbols expressing “eternal truths,” there can also be a transitory nature to them. Their use and interpretive application can change over time. The image of the swastika, for example, was originally a symbol of divine eternity. “Repurposed” houses of worship that find alternative uses with shifting cultural norms are another example.

But more so, all of this begs another point, which can be put in the form of a question: What are the consequences when the power and/or practice of representational signs and symbols are either unconsciously employed, or simply eliminated with nothing to replace them? If, or when, there is an absence of conscious symbolic ritual, what happens with such a lack of awareness about the power signs and symbols play in our lives, and the depth or richness of value and meaning they provide? How can we otherwise express what is ultimately inexpressible?

When there is an absence of conscious symbolic ritual, what happens with such a lack of awareness about the power signs and symbols, how can we otherwise express what is ultimately inexpressible?

Many years after I’d left parish ministry, and no longer practiced many of the symbolic rituals that had once been so formative in expressing without words one particular faith communities beliefs, I found myself in conversation with some old friends with whom I had shared that Lenten experience of the sticks and stones.

Unexpectedly, someone remarked, “I have to tell you, those sticks and stones? That ritual of laying them down, week after week one year? It saved my marriage, when I thought the weight of my anger had all but killed it.”

That single moment reminded me of the power of symbol and ritual; made sacred by the meaning and value they have to save, restore and assure that “things which were cast down can being raised up again, and things which had grown old can be made new ….”


© 2019 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
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You can read more Words & Ways commentaries here.

Topics: Forgiveness, Ritual, and Spiritual Exploration & Practice. 8 Points: Point 4: Act As We Believe. Seasons & Special Events: Easter, Holy Week, and Lent. Ages: Adult. Rituals: Eucharist. Resource Types: Articles and Read.

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