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Christian Symbols

The Ortho­dox Church abounds with the use of sym­bols. These sym­bols are those real­i­ties which have the pow­er and com­pe­tence of man­i­fest­ing God to men, signs which car­ry us beyond our­selves and them­selves into the gen­uine union and knowl­edge of things eter­nal and divine.

Among the Chris­t­ian sym­bols we have already men­tioned are the icons, the sign of the cross, and the vest­ments of litur­gi­cal cel­e­bra­tion. In addi­tion, we can men­tion the use of var­i­ous col­ors which have their par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance, as well as the use of light, nor­mal­ly the nat­ur­al light of can­dles, which leads us to Christ, the Light of the world and of the King­dom of God. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, light is a uni­ver­sal sym­bol for the mys­ti­cal pres­ence of God as the True, the Beau­ti­ful and the Good. This is wit­nessed in almost all reli­gions, philoso­phies, and artis­tic expressions.

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The Ortho­dox Church fol­lows the Bible in its use of incense (Ex 30:8, Ps 141:2; Lk 1:9; Rev 8:3). Incense is the sym­bol of the ris­ing of prayers, of spir­i­tu­al sac­ri­fice and of the sweet-smelling fra­grance of the King­dom of God.

The Church also uses bread, wine, wheat, oil, water, flow­ers and fruits as signs of God’s love, mer­cy, good­ness, life and the very pres­ence giv­en to man in cre­ation and sal­va­tion. Indeed, all ele­ments of cre­ation find the “truth” of their very being and exis­tence as expres­sions and man­i­fes­ta­tions of God, as “sym­bols” of his pres­ence and action in the world for man. This is the rea­son for their use in this way in the Church.

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Among the more graph­ic Chris­t­ian sym­bols in the Church are the ini­tials and let­ters of Christ’s name; the tri­an­gle of the Trin­i­ty; the cir­cle of eter­ni­ty; the fish which stands for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Sav­iour; the eye of God’s omnipres­ence; the anchor of hope; the rock of faith; the flame of God’s con­sum­ing pres­ence; the vine which Jesus named himself—“I am the vine, you are the branch­es” (Jn 15:5); the alpha and the omega (Rev 1:8); the crown and staff of Christ’s king­ship; and many others—all of which indi­cate some aspect of the sav­ing pres­ence and action of God in the world.

The use of sym­bols is a mode of rev­e­la­tion and com­mu­nion which pass­es beyond that of mere ver­bal or intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The death of sym­bols comes when they are arti­fi­cial­ly invent­ed, ratio­nal­ly explained, or reduced to mere “illus­tra­tions” whose mean­ing is not imme­di­ate­ly grasped by man on the lev­el of his liv­ing spir­i­tu­al vision and experience.