A Guide to Symbolism in Worship

The symbols and ceremonies of the church are never meant to be intimidating or to exclude from full participation those who are not familiar with them. Few of these symbols or actions are required to worship God. We use them because they help us in our worship by allowing us to use our bodies, to respond and participate in the liturgy even when there are not words to say, and because they connect us to many ages of men and women in the church who may have used different words in their worship but would still recognize, for instance, the Sign of the Cross as a symbol that unites us.

Water can be found in the Baptismal Font at the front of the Nave. Water is the symbol of Baptism, the Sacrament by which people are made Christians and are initiated into the household of God in Jesus Christ. Many people dip their fingers into the Holy Water on their way by the Font and make the Sign of the Cross on themselves as a reminder of their own Baptism, their membership in God's household.

The Font, in the front of the Nave, is filled with water each week, whenever there are Baptisms, and at Easter, for it is here that water is poured over every new member of the household of Jesus Christ.

Sign of the Cross
The Sign of the Cross is frequently made in one way or another in the liturgy. It is traditionally made with the fingertips of the right hand, tracing the shape of a Cross over one's body by touching first the forehead, then the breast, then left shoulder and finally the right shoulder - the four points of a Cross. When we do this we silently affirm our faith in Jesus, whose death on the Cross was the decisive act of God's salvation of humanity.  You will often see a pastor make the Sign of the Cross over something: like the offering plates, the bread and the wine of Communion, and over the People of God in the final Blessing at every Liturgy. In this way, we symbolize our prayer that God will bless that which is indicated by the action.

Bowing is a gesture of reverence. Most often we use a simple bow, which is just a slight, forward inclination of the head, to show our reverence for God. It's customary to bow when walking past an altar, or when the Cross is carried by in procession. Many people bow their heads at the mention of the Name of Jesus - not as proof that they are especially religious, but as an act of reverence toward the One who gave his life for the salvation of the world.

Sanctuary Lamp
The Sanctuary Lamp is the large lamp that hangs just over and in front of the High Altar. Its white candle burning represents to us the presence of our Lord Jesus in our midst.

The Altar is not only the table on which the celebration of a Eucharist takes place; it is a symbol with many dimensions of meaning, for it is the place where we remember the act of perfect love of Christ's offering of himself for the sake of the world.  It is when we gather at the altar in our worship, that Jesus forms us - and the whole church - into his Body. The altar is most often covered (vested) with a cloth of suitable dignity in a color that signifies the season of the church year. You will see that special care is taken with how we act at the altar, and with sacred vessels that are placed on it.

Incense is a compound of resins and natural scents that is burned on charcoal. Its use in worship is very ancient and has several different symbolic suggestions. It is the one offering made in the liturgy that allows us to use even our sense of smell in the worship of God. It is often said to signify the prayers of God's people rising up to God. It is always regarded as an offering of something special to God, and the smoke carries ancient connotations of purification. When we "cense" something (that is, when we direct the smoke of burning incense toward a particular person or thing) we are honoring that person or thing and indicating our intention that it be set apart for God's purposes. 

Candles always represent God's presence among us, and particularly remind us that Christ's living presence with us brings light to the world. Candles are always lit on the Altar for just this reason (since we no longer rely on them to see!). A special candle, called the Paschal Candle is lit at the Great Vigil of Easter and burns in a place of honor for the 40 days from Easter to the Ascension reminding us that by his resurrection Christ assured us that light would always overcome darkness. At other times of the year the Paschal Candle remains near the Font and is lit for Baptisms and Funerals.

Processions take place in the church at every Liturgy when Choirs and Servers are present.  Processions are led by the Crucifer, followed by the Servers, Choirs, and finally all clergy.  A procession is an act of worship because it gives us an opportunity to raise our voices in song, to pray as we stop along the way, and to remember that God calls all his people to be pilgrims: people who have someplace to go and something to do.

Vestments are worn by many of the people - both clergy and lay - who have particular roles in the Liturgy of the day. We wear vestments in order to adorn ourselves as all equal before God as we seek to draw closer to the presence of God, and because every celebration of the Mass is a feast and worthy of the time and effort it takes to get dressed up. We put on our best for God.

Last Published: March 23, 2011 2:56 PM