Article 94 – Catechism of the Catholic Church Series
Paragraphs 1145-1162 Some readers may recall the once popular 1971 hit song called “Signs,” written and performed by the Canadian rock group “Five Man Electrical Band.” I would try feverishly to strum the music of this song on my guitar as a young teenager with notions of future stardom.
The words of the song capture the sentiment of all who use signs in their businesses and non-profit charities, including the Church we love: “Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs, Blocking out the scenery, Breaking my mind. Do this, Don’t do that, Can’t you read the signs?”Ironically, the lyrics did not turn me away from the Church, but helped me discover that signs have a more positive place in the Church because, as the Catechism teaches, “a sacramental celebration is woven from signs and symbols…their meaning… rooted in the work of creation and in human culture…and fully revealed in the person and work of Christ” (ccc1145). “As social beings,” the Catechism reminds us, “humans need signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures, and actions. The same holds true for our relationship with God” (ccc 1146). This section of the Catechism summarizes the various signs & symbols (ccc 1145-1152), words & actions (ccc 1153-1155), singing & music (ccc 1156-1158), and holy images (ccc 1159-1162), that are present throughout the Liturgy.
Regarding signs and symbols, “the Chosen People received from God distinctive signs and symbols that marked its liturgical life … [including] circumcision, anointing and consecration of kings and priests, laying on of hands, sacrifices, and above all the Passover. The Church sees in these signs a prefiguring of the sacraments of the New Covenant” (ccc 1150). Christ, of course, “is the meaning of all these signs” (ccc 1151).
Throughout the Mass we perform various symbolic acts like the sign of the cross, standing, sitting, etc., and through them we come to realize that “symbolic actions are already a language, but the Word of God and the response of faith have to accompany and give life to them” (ccc 1153).
The Catechism reminds us that in order “to nourish the faith of believers, the signs which accompany the Word of God should be emphasized” (ccc 1154). For example, at some Masses the Book of the Gospels is prominently carried by the deacon in the opening procession of the Mass and again prior to the Gospel proclamation, in order to highlight thesignificance of the Gospels, both proclaimed and lived in our lives. In addition, as the Gospel is about to be proclaimed, the priest or deacon makes the sign of the cross on the Lectionary or Book of the Gospels and has us sign our foreheads, lips and hearts as a reminder that we are to hear the Holy Gospel with an open mind, proclaim it with our lips, and cherish and safeguard it in our hearts. All these symbolsworking together help remind us of our preciousfaith. Then, says the Catechism, “when the Holy
Spirit awakens faith, he not only gives an understanding of the Word of God, but through the sacraments also makes present the ‘wonders’ of God which it proclaims” (ccc 1155).
Throughout the celebration of the Liturgy the entire assembly is encouraged to participate in the singing while being accompanied by an organist or other musicians. The Catechism tells us that “the musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (ccc 1156). A little later, we are reminded that “song and music fulfill their function as signs in a manner all the more significant when they are more closely connected…with the liturgical action, according to three principal criteria: beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly…and the solemn character of the celebration” (ccc 1157).
We are also told through the Catechism that “harmony of signs (song, music, words, and actions) is all the more expressive and fruitful when expressed in the cultural richness of the People of God who celebrate…[the texts] should be drawn chiefly from the Sacred Scripture and from liturgical sources” (ccc 1158).
The final few paragraphs in this section of the Catechism deal with Holy Images that serve as powerful signs and symbols in the Liturgy. We are instructed that “the sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ” (ccc 1159). As Saint John Damascene explains: “Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh…” As such, “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other” (ccc 1160).
The last two paragraphs in this section again remind us that everything in our celebration of the Sacred Liturgy points to Christ. “All the signs in the liturgical celebrations,” the Catechism teaches, “are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them” (ccc 1161).
Whether as members of the assembly/ congregation or persons with specific functions to perform, we enter fully into the mystery of the Liturgy by allowing the signs and symbols of the sacred place (the church) to influence our participation. As the Catechism puts it, our “contemplation of [the] sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns” is “imprinted in the heart’s memory” and “then expressed in the new life of the faithful” (ccc 1162) not only during our worship at Mass, but when we go forth from Mass … to love and serve the Lord.
Father Hillier serves as Director of the Diocesan Office of the Pontifical Missions, the Office for Persons with Disabilities, and Censor Librorum