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Volume 15, Issue 3: Liturgia

More on Signs and Symbols

Peter Leithart

Scottish nobles were arriving for the feast, but their host was, yet again, "rapt." Ever the attentive (and pestering) wife and hostess, Lady Macbeth, urged her husband to greet his guests:

My royal lord,
You do not give the cheer. The feast is sold
That is not often vouch'd, while `tis a-making,
`Tis given with welcome. To feed were best at home;
From thence the sauce to meat is ceremony;
Meeting were bare without it.
Alas. For all Lady Macbeth's attentions, the feast was a disaster, for reasons wholly outside of her control—visions of bloody ghosts, Macbeth's outbreak of insanity, interruptions by hired thugs. The stuff of Martha Stewart's nightmares.
For Lady Macbeth and for many Christians, ceremonies and symbols are more or less unnecessary adornments or enhancements of real life. The key assumptions in this view are that natural or literal reality can be isolated from its enhancements, that natural or literal reality is non-symbolic, and that "real [i.e., non-symbolic] life" is the foundation on which we set up pretty symbols. These assumptions are false.
Sharp distinctions between sauce and meat, between normal/natural and ceremonial, or between "literal" and "symbolic" dissolve on inspection. With regard to language, there is no clear line between literal and symbolic. In an important sense, all language is "symbolic" because it employs visual symbols or sounds that mean something other than themselves. Even if we put that point to the side, it is still evident that there is a spectrum from less metaphorical to more metaphorical language rather than a clear boundary line.
Most readers, for instance, will have understood the previous paragraph as primarily literal, yet I have employed several figures in the course of my argument: No one is really drawing lines between literal and symbolic words and those non-lines are not literally "clear," distinctions are not literally "sharp," I am not "making" "points" (as if this were an exercise in pin-production), and no reader is actually being asked to put my "points" to the "side." The moment we speak, we use language that is always already symbolic.
Lady Macbeth was most completely wrong to believe that it is possible to have a "meeting" (even a naked one) without ceremony or symbol. Language and other symbolic acts create, renew, or maintain personal relations, so that there can be no meeting without symbol. Coming into a party full of strangers, you spy a familiar face in a small but lively circle near the hors d'oeuvres. As soon as you enter the circle, you begin to deploy symbols, and are deployed against. You use language: "Hello!" "Bon jour!" "Hola!" "Guten Tag!" You exchange greeting gestures—a handshake, a kiss, a hug, a significant exchange of looks, a secret fraternity rite. Should your friend introduce you to the other members of the group, you speak, shake hands, smile. Without these symbolic actions, these meaningful uses of the body, no personal relationship would be established.
Or: A young man is desperately in love with a young woman. He thinks about her day and night, dreams about her, imagines what it would be like to hold her hand, to kiss her, and so on. This might go on for years and years without becoming an actual romance. If he is going to move from internal feelings of infatuation and an imaginary romance to the risky but more pleasurable relationship with a real woman, he must "go public." And he does this through symbols. He speaks or writes to her, employing linguistic signs; he sends flowers, which he intends as an erotic symbol rather than an encouragement to horticulture. She will respond, if she responds, with symbols—words or significant actions—which will imply something on the spectrum between invitation and scorn.
In these examples, symbols do not dress up and enhance a relationship that already exists; we are not back to Lady Macbeth and her saucy meats. On the contrary, relationships do not exist at all apart from the symbolic and ceremonial exchanges. We cannot say, except as a joke, "I know him/her well, we're great friends, but we've never spoken or written or exchanged greetings."
Relationships do not exist "behind" the symbolic exchanges, as if the "real relationship" were a hidden "spiritual" reality of which the symbols are only visible or audible "expressions." Our pining lover might find comfort in Lombard's definition: The signs he uses are, he might hope, "visible signs of an invisible relationship." An invisible romance is better than none! But no; Lombard offers only false comfort. Without signs there is no romance, not even an invisible one.
What does this all have to do with liturgy and sacraments? If sacraments are signs and symbols in the sense suggested here, then they are (with the Word and through the Spirit) the matrix of personal communion with the Triune God. The symbolism involved in sacraments is the symbolism of action, less like the symbolism of a painting or a metaphor than the symbolism of a handshake or a wave or a kiss. They are symbols by and through and in which personal, covenantal relationships are forged and maintained. Sacraments are not "signs of an invisible relationship with Christ." Rather, the intricate fabric of exchanged language, gesture, symbol, and action is our personal relationship with God.

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