October 13, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Symbols add meaning to everyday life

Cynthia DewesPeople live by symbols. That’s because symbols illustrate the verities of life in a way that helps us to understand ourselves and the world around us. Think of Christ’s parables, which are symbolic stories that teach us to live according to God’s will.

Of course, some symbols are not so serious. A few of us can remember the movie star Betty Grable, whose lovely legs symbolized feminine beauty and desirability for American GIs during World War II. And there’s Mickey Mouse, who has symbolized cheer and optimism for more than 80 years. It makes us happy just to look at him.

Uncle Sam symbolizes the independent spirit of our country, and the American flag represents a unifying focus for a vast, disparate country of many peoples. Scales of justice symbolize the judiciary, and every state has a seal that illustrates its origins and aims.

So, symbolism is not new. It’s been going on in human circles forever, including in ancient Egypt. In fact, the astronomical knowledge and religious belief of Egyptian priests in 4000 B.C. has come down to us symbolically in the playing cards we use in games today.

The priests divided their knowledge of the heavens, the times when the Nile River flooded, etc., into 52 sections (the cards), one for each week of the year. These were then combined in 13 groups (each with cards two through ace) representing the lunar months of the year. Each month of 28 days included four weeks (the suits). Since this added up to be one day short of 365, the ancients added a Joker for the extra day. At one time, there was even an extra Joker for the additional leap year day.

There’s more. The four weeks, or four suits, represented the four elements of antiquity: earth, water, air and fire. For reasons too complicated to explain here, earth came to be represented by a club, water by a heart, air by a diamond, and fire by a spade. Two suits were red, representing day, and two were black, representing night. The Ace (A for alpha) is the highest card, figured as number one and representing the Divine Being. And so on. I wonder if Las Vegas casino employees know about this.

But, getting back to Christianity, we find that parables are not the only symbolism contained in the Gospels. The Gospels themselves, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are represented in Church art by a human face, a lion, an ox and an eagle.

The Gospel of Matthew stresses that Christ is human as well as divine, and thus is illustrated by a human face. Mark tells of John the Baptist crying in the desert of Christ’s coming and, since the desert seemed to be a place of lions to the ancients, a lion represents Mark’s Gospel.

Luke is the only Gospel writer to speak of Christ’s birth in a place where animals were kept, so an ox became his symbol. And John, who described Christ’s divinity and pre-existence in language as glorious as the flight of eagles, thus came to be represented by an eagle. Not only that, the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel mentioned these same four symbols in a vision of future salvation.

Body language is a kind of symbol. Words are powerful symbols of intention or feeling, as is silence. It helps to be alert to symbols we come across in life.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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