General and Introductory Materials
Part 4 Liturgical Issues

Chapter d42 Symbol and Metaphor

Preliminary Questions

Bibliography

Symbol

Metaphor

Ritual

Liturgical Colors

Numbers As Qualities

To Think About

Preliminary Questions

 

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Bibliography

Leo Hay, Eucharist: A Thanksgiving Celebration.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By.  (University of Chicago Press, 1980)

Stephen Happel, "Symbol" in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, (Ed. Peter E. Fink, S.J.), pp. 1237-1245.

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Symbol

See:  Stephen Happel, "Symbol" in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, (Ed. Peter E. Fink, S.J.), pp. 1237-1245.

Symbol:   a very rich -- and consequently difficult -- word with multiple meanings in contemporary usage.

Happel:  "A working definition for symbol would be a complex of gestures, sounds, images, and / or words that evoke, invite, and persuade participation in that to which they refer."Symbols have multiple levels of meaning and value.  Unlike signs or signals (such as a stop sign or mathematical symbols), symbols do not refer to one item or indicate a one-to-one correspondence between the sign and the signified. They disclose reality by making available to their participants meanings and values that involve them intellectually, emotionally and morally, while exceeding the physical components of the signifier. Part of their emotional power is due to this multiplicity. (Happel, p 1238)

"Symbols are always embedded in cultural stories." (Happel, p 1239)

"The primary symbol of Christian meaning is the life, death, and resurrection of Christ." (Happel, p 1244)    Our Catholic Faith is firm in the conviction "that the Christian God never ceases to be incarnate in symbolic forms." (Happel, p 1245)

Symbol is the language of liturgy.  Liturgy is an art.  The methodology of liturgy requires not only the knowledge of facts, dates, rules, formulas; it requires a sense of the beautiful, perception of tension and rhythms, communication of the sacred, an eye for color and form, a kinetic sense of grace and motion, etc. Liturgy deals in symbols and visions, dreams and possibilities. A course in liturgy cannot be approached in the same way as a course in mathematics or marketing.  Christianity is a sacramental religion:  sacrament and symbol are analogous.

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Metaphor

1.  Definition of Metaphor  Webster's Dictionary defines metaphor as "a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, different thing by being spoken of as if it were that other. For example: ĎAll the world's a stage.'"   The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another"  (Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, p 5).  

A metaphor both reveals and conceals; it tell us something about "what is" and about "what is not."   "My love is like a red, red rose..." Reveals -- what my love is -- sweet, precious, fragile, beautiful, etc.  Conceals (i.e. does not imply that my love is) green, thorny, dangerous, has one long green leg, dies if not standing in water, etc.

Metaphors are polyvalent.  Brandon Scott points out that "allegory and metaphor are not juxtaposed but are part of the same continuum" (Scott, Hear Then the Parable, p 47).

2.  Metaphors We Live By  I first learned of metaphors in English class in grade school. Other than the times when I was reading poetry, metaphors didn't concern me.  Now that a few years have passed since my grade school days and I am more concerned about why I think what I think, I have been helped greatly by contemporary scholars who use the concept of metaphor to help us understand the way we speak and think in our day-to-day living. The following is an example taken directly from Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson, U. of Chicago Press, 1980), a book I often recommend to my students.

3.  Argument is like War   There are times when we argue (and those of us who are always right argue more than we'd like to admit). The ordinary way in which Americans speak about arguments employs the metaphor "an argument is like a war".  For example, we say things like: "He attacked every weak point in my argument." "Her criticisms were right on target." "I've never won an argument with her." "He shot down all of my arguments." "Your claims are indefensible." "I demolished her argument." In other words, the understanding of "argument" to be "war" influences the way we talk about an argument. But we don't just "talk about" arguments in terms of war. "We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. ... It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing."  "War" forms the paradigm or model out of which we image "argument." (see Lakoff, p 5)

4.  Time is Money   Another easy example: TIME IS MONEY. "You are wasting my time." "How did you spend your time today?" You need to budget your time better." "Money" forms the paradigm or model out of which we image "time." We use these metaphors whether we are aware of them or not. It is just seems "the natural thing to do."

5.  Mass is Good Friday  Recall Thomas Groome's Movement One  "Getting in Touch".   What is your basic metaphor for Mass?  Sacrifice? Good Friday?  Most Catholics received their understanding of the Mass from the Baltimore Catechism:  "What is the Mass? The Mass is the sacrifice of the New Law in which Christ, through the ministry of the priest, offers Himself to God in an unbloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine."  (The New Baltimore Catechism, 1953, Question 357, p 157)   The metaphor determines reality, as it did for the woman who asked me:  "Why are we singing all those happy songs at Mass if Christ is dying on the cross?"   At the time of the Council "Good Friday" was the predominant metaphor for eucharist:  After the Council we are trying to balance the three metaphors:  Good Friday (sacrifice), Holy Thursday (meal), and Easter Sunday (Church). 

6.  Metaphor and Preaching  "Metaphor lives by tension. In metaphor we bring together elements from different realms, and, in their conjunction, discover new meanings. Thus, metaphor is a paradigm for preaching. In preaching, we bring out meaning from the mystery of God-with-us, and bring out the reality of being-saved-in-the-world and put them together. Preaching mediates metaphorically." [Metaphors We Live By]

7.  A metaphor reveals, reveals partially, and conceals.

8.  Can a symbol mean anything you want it to mean? Why or why not?

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Ritual

Ritual, Myth, and Mythos are treated in the Glossary under Ritual.

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Liturgical Colors

For a very fine article on the history of Vestment colors in the Church, see the article by J. Barrington Bates "Am I Blue? Some Historical Evidence for Liturgical Colors"  In Studia Liturgica 33(2003)  75-88.

For the distinction between Advent Violet and Lent Violet see Chapter 41 Advent

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Numbers As Qualities

How many sacraments are there?  The answer depends on two things, 1) how you define sacrament, and 2) how you use numbers.

1) How you define sacrament. If you define sacrament as a ritual found in the New Testament, there are two sacraments baptism and Eucharist. If you define sacrament as a ritual listed by Peter Lombard in his "Book of Sentences" there are seven. (Often when Protestants use the word sacrament they use the first definition, when Catholics use the word sacrament they use the second definition.)

2) How you use numbers. We contemporary Americans usually (nearly always!) use numbers as quantities. They tell us how much or how many.  The bible was written at a time when mathematics and magic were the same science.  In the bible and in the religions flowing from the bible, numbers often are more important symbolically (qualitatively) than "numerically" (quantitatively).  For example:  7 is the number of perfection (3 the heavenly number and 4 the earthly number = 7 totality). There are 7 sacraments, all the sacraments you need, the perfect amount of sacraments, the fullness of the Mysterion.  (No matter how many (quantity) sacraments there are, there are seven (quality) sacraments. 

[The following is taken from an article by Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M. "Sacraments: It All Starts with Jesus," Catholic Update, Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, August, 1993. C0893.]

There are seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Anointing, Marriage, and Holy Orders. But Jesus is sacrament and the Church is sacrament. Does that make nine? If we speak of Baptism and Confirmation as being one sacrament, does that mean there are six instead of seven? The question "How many Sacraments are there?" has received different answers at various period of our history depending on what the question meant and how the questioner understood the word Sacrament.

Today we Americans usually (nearly always!) use numbers as quantities. They tell us how much or how many. How much is my gas bill? How many days till Christmas? But numbers can also be used as qualities. For example, many people feel that "thirteen" is unlucky. "Thirteen" in this sense indicates a quality (unlucky) rather than a quantity (one more than twelve and one less than fourteen). It is not something you can figure out mathematically or explain to a "non-believer."

In our industrial America this qualitative use of numbers sounds strange or superstitious. But this use is quite common in other societies and other historical periods. Numbers as qualities have often been used in religion. This religious sense is the primary meaning of "seven" in the phrase: there are seven sacraments.

Four is the number for earth and three is the number for heaven. There are four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. There are four directions: north, south, east, and west. Three is a heavenly number. There are three Persons in God. To join earth and heaven, the material and the spiritual, the created and the divine, four and three, we have "all that is." And so, seven means universal, completeness, totality. When we say that there are seven sacraments we mean, in this religious sense, that the entire universe is a sacrament; all created things are windows to the divine; we have all the sacraments we will ever need! ("Seven" is frequently used in this religious sense: there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, in the Book of Revelation, John writes to the seven churches, that is, to the Universal Church). [end of Catholic Update article]

Other numbers in the bible mean...  [The following is my adaptation of information from a lecture on the Gospel according to John by Michael Surgrue, Ph.D. from a series of tapes The Bible and Western Culture, published by The Teaching Company, 7405 Alban Station Court, A-106, Springfield, VA 22150-2318. Phone 1-800-832-2412]

1 is the number of God.  e.g. There is one God.

2 is the number of society.

3 is the number of heaven. e.g. Three persons in one God.  Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day (Mt. 16:21).  John explicitly mentions (2:1) that the wedding at Cana, which prefigures the resurrection, took place "on the third day."  Also the superlative degree of adjectives, e.g. in English "Holiest" (as in "Holy, Holier, Holiest") in the bible is "Holy, holy, holy." Jesus was in the tomb 3 days and rose to Divine life, where as Lazarus was in the tomb 4 days and returned to human life.

4 is the number of earth. e.g. East, West, North, South;  Earth, Air, Fire, Water; Power, Intellect, Ardor, Emotion;  Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.  Lazarus was in the tomb 4 days and he returned to earthly life.

5 is the number for human beings (1 head, 2 arms, 2 legs = 5) e.g. With 5 loaves and 2 fish Jesus feeds all of human society.

6 is the number for imperfection (not seven) incompleteness, corruption. e.g. 666 ( three 6's) total corruption. The number of the Beast, the Antichrist.

7 is the number of perfection ( 3 heaven + 4 earth = 7). e.g. There are seven sacraments (see my article above); seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; in the Book of Revelation, John writes to the seven churches, that is, to the Universal Church. When Matthew constructs his genealogy of Jesus, when he lists 7 times 2, 7 times 2, 7 times 2;  he is not looking up Jesus' ancestors in the city record, he is indicating that Jesus comes in the FULLNESS (seven x 2 x 3) of time and is the COMPLETION of humanity.

In the Gospel of John which begins with the very words with which the book of Genesis begins, "In the beginning," as the first creation in Genesis was accomplished in seven days so the new creation is accomplished in 7 days (John 1:29, "the next day" day two; 1:35 "the next day", day three; 1:43 "the next day", day four; 2:1 "on the third day"; we are now at the seventh day "There was a wedding in Cana of Galilee."  John uses this literary device of numbering the days to indicate that the new creation comes to its culmination in the resurrection of Jesus which now becomes, for the Christian, the first day, the eighth day, the day of the Eucharist.

The synoptic gospels speak of "miracles" John speaks of "signs".  In the Gospel of John there are seven signs:  1.  Cana, 2.  healing the official's son, 3.  healing the paralytic, 4. feeding the multitude, 5. walking on the water, 6. healing the man born blind, 7. raising Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus uses the phrase "I am" seven times in John.

12 is the number of harmony ( 3 times 4).  e.g. Twelve tribes, twelve apostles, twelve gates in the heavenly city.

40 is the number of completion.   Noah in the arc.  Moses in the desert.  Jesus in the desert.  Note:  this the the meaning of the Forty Day Retreat before Easter we call Lent.   Don't try to count 40 days quantitatively (Ash Wed, Thu, Fri, Sat, = 4;  then five weeks of 7 = 35+4 = 39 plus  Sun, Mon, Tue, Wed, of Holy Week and 3/4th's of Thursday before the Triduum begins = 5 + 39 = 44?.  And if the Sundays of Lent don't count, why do we call them the Sundays of Lent?  The point:  it is not a quantitative 40, but a qualitative 40.  40 is the number of completion.

Seven Sacraments -- Summary:  Bible: Two Sacraments are commissioned (ordered / ordinance): Baptism and Eucharist. St. Augustine. A sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace. Many different rituals considered sacraments. Peter Lombard: Sentences (1150 CE) lists the seven we now call Sacraments. Seven: Numbers as quantities / numbers as Qualities. 3 + 4 = All. Reformation: Avoid "sacrament" and prefer "ordinance". Suspicious of "magical" nature of an oversimplified teaching on the sacraments.

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To Think About

 

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Copyright: Tom Richstatter.  All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 03/20/15 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at trichstatter@franciscan.org