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by Colin Harbinson

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, at least, the poets speak on: the great lights, they say, and the days and the weeks they rule are ... made by God ... the sun of righteousness. But God is not the sun. And, for Christians, Sunday is the order giving first day now, chiefly because it is the day of assembly around the risen Christ, not the risen sun.... the new poetics say: “God made sun and moon!”9

The symbolism of these heavenly bodies has been transformed by the introduction of biblical poetics that “speaks” new content and new meaning. God and sun are not one and the same. God is declared the creator of the universe. This established, the poetics are allowed to speak on, as a symbolic reconnection is made, within a new framework of meaning. When “biblical poetics” are brought to bear upon an existing symbol, its physical properties and the sensations it evokes remain the same. Transformation is found in the new meaning that it acquires.

Conceptual Thought

We return here to our understanding of symbols as vehicles that unify vastly different realities. Religious language is fundamentally symbolic, because it points to the transcendent. Symbols connect people with, and bond them to, their story—their ultimate perception of reality. However, it would be a mistake to think that it ends here. Symbolism must be brought to a place of greater understanding that comes from conceptual thought. “Sacred concepts are inextricably linked with the symbols that express them.”10

When Ricoeur’s first three attributes of a symbol are satisfied, he allows a fourth dimension—the reflective. He states that, “a symbol is a complex of meanings that may give rise to thought, that might feed concept and doctrine.”11 By linking symbol with thought and concept, Ricoeur has opened a significant door of understanding. Livingston concurs that “most ordinary religious language ... is richly metaphoric and poetic in character. Yet, in literate societies, it does not remain at that level. The symbols … and stories require interpretation, elaboration, and commentary.”12 Symbolism on its own can move and inspire, yet it can lack needed clarity. On the other hand, conceptual thought without a powerful symbol system will lead to arid ideology.

Narrative Re-enactment

Symbols “speak” in many ways and on various levels. They signify, mediate, and evoke individual and collective meaning. Rituals, on the other hand, allow us to experience our story through re-enactment. According to Larry Shinn, “rituals are symbols acted out.”13 This performative aspect is an essential component of ritual. Something “happens,” something is “experienced.” Re-enactment is evident, for example, in communion. It is not insignificant that it is often referred to as the Lord’s Supper, for Christ himself is the paradigmatic model. Believers partake of the symbols—bread and wine—in a ritual5 reenactment of the biblical event known as the Last Supper, in response to Christ’s command to do this in “remembrance of me.” As we do this, we are “reminded” of our story, and connected and bonded to it in a special way.

Focus on the symbols within a framework of story recitation, moments of meditation, response, and songs of corporate worship allow the past, present, and future to come together in a powerful experience. Ritual reenactment enables the believer to experience, in some measure, the original paradigmatic event or meaning. This connection between knowledge about the story and experience of the story is found in the symbolic ritual of Shabbat. The Jewish people experience their story through ritual reenactment during their festive celebrations. Commenting on these festivals, Rabbi Eckstein describes Passover as a time when, ”we retell the story and symbolically relive the events.”14

Rooted in Narrative

To understand Jewish festivals is to be faced continually with the critical link between story, symbol and ritual. Ritual practice is always accompanied by the reading of the paradigmatic event from the Torah. Eckstein states that “it is the Torah that guides the Jew’s path, shapes his character, and links him with ultimacy. The Torah is the lens through which the Jew perceives life and reality.”15 It is this high view of Scripture that continually informs a symbolic and ritual practice that is firmly rooted in narrative.

When a paradigmatic story is not clearly connected to the symbol or ritual, the story loses its power. Meaning is replaced by meaningless ritual and empty tradition. When the form is present, but the meaning is absent, the form, not the meaning, becomes sacred and inviolable. When our symbols and rituals are self-referential instead of pointing to our story, they have become idolatrous.

Symbols and rituals must be continually contextualized within the story, or else their meaning will be weakened, or worse, forgotten. Zahniser puts it succinctly: referring to Christian discipleship, he says that symbol and ceremonies without teaching soon lose their reference to God; teaching without symbols and ceremonies soon lacks relevance to life in the world.16 Symbols speak and rituals reenact in dynamic ways, because their appeal is to the totality of a person. A powerful symbol system, together with authentic ritual reenactment, will bind us to the meaning of our story and to our faith community. Without this, we will surely bond to other narratives—other meanings.

Reintegrating Word and Image

It must be stated clearly that there is no suggestion here that symbols and rituals in any way replace the regenerative and ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. No amount of symbolic or ritualistic behavior can bring people into a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The significance here is the direct relationship between the story of a given people and the symbol and ritual system that bind them to it—and the powerful potential that symbols and rituals hold as tools for Christian discipleship. This brings us back to Ricoeur’s schema and Lathrop’s meaningful application that offers insight into how symbols “speak” and the way in which their meaning can be transformed. Here Lathrop uses evocative and reflective language, even as he challenges us to recover what has so often been lost in Christian experience and worship:

The primary symbols of the assembly need to be recovered as full signs that readily evoke the cosmic, oneiric, and the poetic ... But we are not about a new paganism; there is no great hope in our symbols … but rather in these greatly evoked and greatly broken in the poetics and grace of God. The recovery of symbols needs to be accompanied with a profound recovery of biblical catechesis and preaching, of mystagogy into the surprise of Jesus Christ.17

Neither word nor symbol is complete without the other. The new word in Christ—the biblical poetics—must be reflected in the renewal of symbol, ritual, and ultimate meaning. Lathrop points us again to communion and the symbol of bread as an appropriate metaphor of the reality and process of meaning-renewal. “The old cosmic, oneiric, and poetic references have been received and broken and reshaped. There is no salvation, finally, in our dreams or in our ancient symbols ... but in surprising grace, God saves all that we are—our hopes and our fears and even our dreams and symbols and stories.”18

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