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Christian Symbolism #1

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"Christian Symbolism is the use of signs and emblems to reach and present religious truths. Words often fail where symbolism succeeds, while taken together they frequently make spiritual things more fully grasped. This is as true today as when as it was in those times past, when education was not as general and printing was unknown. Like Musical Notation, Christian Symbolism illustrates that for which it stands. And it adds a certain beauty and mysticism to religion, speaking as it does of an unseen world and a supernatural faith. For the proper understanding of Christian Art and Architecture some knowledge of symbolism is absolutely necessary." (The Practice of Religion, by The Rev. Archibald Campbell Knowles, D.D., p. 48)

I could have rewritten all that and put it into my own words, but the author did a far better job than I could, so the quote. What will follow over time are very short examples of Christian symbols. Coming from the very trend dominated part of the Church, namely Amercian-Evangelical/Charismatic/Penectostalism, the discovery of the ancient traditions and symbols of the Church Catholic is amazing to me - a sense of unity through linear time and beyond, experience beyond myself or my little group, and that which is tried through experience over centuries. The mystery of the faith maintained and retained and now being discovered and rediscovered by so many people. If find it fascinating that younger generations and American-Evangelicals are on the forefront of the rediscovery of the traditions, rituals, and symbols of the Christian Faith.

The Rood Screen:

Is "that which separates the Chancel from the Nave symbolizes the Gate of Death, leading from earth to Heaven by the Cross. The Crucifix here stands on the horizontal Rood Beam above the Screen and therefore is sometimes called the Rood."

There have been a large number of Anglican/Episcopalian churches that have removed their Rood Screens over the last few decades. There are many people in my own seminary, The General Theological Seminary, which still has a beautifully carved wooded Rood Screen, who constantly call for the removal of the Rood Screen because to them in their egalitarianism it separates. I think it may say more about them (some of them that is) then it does about a reasoned and well thought-out theological perspective.

The East has likewise always made a distinction between "chronos" and "kairos." The place where these two "opposites" unite in sacred space is called the iconographic plane, the iconastasis which has evolved as the icon screen. It must be noted, however, that (particularly) in Coptic and Levantine Egypt, the screen is often carved and unadorned. The wooden screen itself proclaims its liturgical and theological function. At the time of the Second Vatican Council the church in the West proposed a pragmatic architectural response to liturgical renewal, a response that turned sacred space into community space shifting the focus away from "presence" to "priesthood." Failing to understand the function of the icon in liturgy, and the theology of the built environment of church as an icon of the "other place," we imagined the iconastasis to be a screen designed to separate the clergy from laity. It is not so, not true. The iconostasis was not designed, it evolved to become the gathering point for the laos. Nevertheless the Oriental form of iconostasis is in a way a more authentic statement about the place of sacred space than its Eastern Orthodox counterpart.

Likewise the western church, in rescuing the theology of laos from mediaevalism on the one hand and reformation reaction on the other, was hasty and made little or no proper reference to Eastern and Oriental Orthodox architectural forms. We set about eliminating rood screens, communion rails and chancels in the belief that by doing so we could either (1) make the liturgy more intelligent to the people or (2) that we could restore the church to a more "apostolic" mode of celebration of divine liturgy by having priest and people more visible to each other and therefore better able to communicate notions of "priesthood" in more authentic ways.

The consequence of all of this was the loss of mystery. The word "mystery" does not mean "that which is hidden," but rather, "that which has yet to be revealed." There were, of course, other good theological reasons for abandoning the traditional position for the celebrant of the Eucharist, for constructing nave altars, for doing away with pulpits and for involving the laity in innovative liturgical ministries; but we failed to take into account the "other half" of Christendom which for very good theological reasons developed the iconastasis. The East has not demolished pulpits and the East has continued to involve the laity in their own ministries within the sacred space called sanctuary. In the Orient there has always been a liturgical function for lay people.


Eastern Christian Worlds, Anglican Theological Review, Fall 1997 by Bayton, John

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