Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Signs & Mysteries: Incorporating History into the Sacraments

I like the excitement of thinking of how early Christians and those ever since have understood the reality of salvation history as part of our history. Also, the idea of these symbols being lovingly passed down to us by our Christian forebears is like something out of a mystery novel that engages us in every way possible ... heart, mind, and soul.
But the art of nascent Christianity intended to “incorporate the events of history into the sacrament.” What does that mean? It means that, by participating in the rites of the Church, each and every Christian was stepping into the stream of salvation history. Each was taking his or her place alongside Abraham, Moses, and David, Peter and Paul and the martyrs. God’s saving action was not a matter of the long-ago past or a vague and distant future, but a reality of the most immediate present — it was really present, and experienced in the baptismal water, the oil of anointing, and in the bread and wine of the liturgy. This is the overarching theme that runs through the vast array of symbols we find on the walls, lamps, rings, medals, cups, caskets, coins, and flasks of Christian antiquity.

This was more than theory, more than theology, more than the excitement of sharing a code or cracking a code. St. Cyril of Jerusalem talked about the difference these symbols made in the everyday spirituality of ordinary Christians. “The Savior comes in different forms for the benefit of each person. To those who lack joy, He becomes a Vine; and to those who wish to enter, He stands as a Door. To those who need to offer up their prayers, He stands as a mediating High Priest. To those who have sins, He becomes a Sheep, that He may be sacrificed for them. He becomes all things to all men, keeping what He is in His own nature. “

The lamb on the lamp, then, was a reminder of a truth at the heart of life — a truth worth dying for.


We have tried in this book to provide a key to understanding not only the early-Christian symbols, but the early Christians’ experience of these symbols as well. We wanted to recover the freshness and urgency of the original images — to show the symbols as they first appeared and explain how they “worked,” using the words of the early Christians themselves. This material will help to demonstrate the significance of each particular symbol in the life of the Church, in history, and in the lives of individual believers.

In depicting the symbols, we tried, again whenever possible, to model our illustrations on the real archeological remains of the era of the Fathers. We have, however, restored them to some semblance of their original condition — again, to enable modern readers to experience the symbols not as artifacts but as personal messages, from one Christian generation to another.

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