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The power of sacred symbols

Friday, December 21, 2018 - Updated: 9:30 am

By Dr. Susan Muto

A golden sunrise on a frosty morn. Light refracted through a stained-glass window. Fresh wreaths forecasting the Christmas season.

Symbols like these light up our religious imagination. The wreath may symbolize a circle of believers, who sing carols over the holiday to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation.

The narration of the Christmas story is full of symbolic power. In response to hearing the announcement of the miracle of motherhood, Mary says to the angel Gabriel, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Her consent to the Father’s will manifests the awesome depth and courage of her self-renunciation. Her simple words convey profound power: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Only then did the angel leave her.

Our own narrations of the joys and sorrows of everyday life have layers of symbolic meaning. When the Blessed Mother visits her cousin Elizabeth, their encounter forecasts that holy night when shepherds, angelic hosts and visitors from the East witness the birth of our Redeemer.

The Bible is a treasury of symbols that teach us to remember the past in faith, to imagine the present in hope and to anticipate the future in love. Every conversion story we hear is a source of lasting value, encouraging us to be freed from binding attachments and freed for a person-to-person relationship with God.

In one of her “Letters from Westerbork,” written Aug. 18, 1943, a few months before her death at Auschwitz on Nov. 30, Etty Hillesum shared this conversion experience with her friend Tide:

“This afternoon I was resting on my bunk and suddenly I just had to write these few words in my diary, and I now send them to you: ‘You have made me so rich, oh, God, please let me share out your beauty with open hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with you, oh, God, one great dialogue. Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on your earth, my eyes raised toward your heaven, tears sometimes run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie in my bed and rest in you, oh, God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that is my prayer.’”

Etty’s prayer, though offered long ago, reverberates in our heart here and now. Her plight sparks our own feelings of compassion and arouses our need for inner transformation.

The power of sacred symbols enhances the opportunity to reclaim the firm foundations of our faith tradition. The waves may rise, the winds may howl, but the gates of hell will not prevail against her.

At the wedding feast at Cana, Mary tells the servers, when the wine has been drunk to the last drop, to go to Jesus and “do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). These are the last words recorded from the lips of our Blessed Mother, yet in them we find a short formula for renewal of our spiritual life.

To do what he tells us means that we have to renounce the negative self-talk that kills initiative and drowns our best intentions in petty gossip, false guilt, envy and jealousy. We have to resolve with courage and creativity whatever blocks our commitment to follow Jesus.

We must try our best to symbolize by the lives we lead the jubilant results of doing whatever Christ tells us to do with resolute hearts and obedient spirits. Though such forces as secularism and moral relativism threaten the church we love, it is and remains our surest source of spiritual strength.

The English mystic Julian of Norwich refused to deny her faith in the face of suffering or to doubt the efficacy of God’s redemptive plan. Comparable to Etty Hillesum’s uninterrupted dialogue with God is Julian’s being shown the symbol of a hazelnut. She writes in her “Showings of Divine Love”:

“I looked at it with my mind’s eye and I thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind, ‘It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.’ And … in this little thing I saw three truths. The first is that God made it. The second is that God loves it. The third is that God looks after it.”

Julian saw in this symbol her maker, her lover and her protector. She knew it would be impossible for her to rest in peace until, in her words, “I am held so close to him that there is nothing in between.” Is not this the hope we all hold dear?

Such a sacred symbol reveals the bridge between what we believe and why we try our best to live these beliefs in daily life, bolstered by the conviction that our purpose on earth is to run the race of faith to the finish line (Hebrews 12:1).

Muto is dean and executive director of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood. Visit www.epiphanyassociation.org.


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