Symbols in Worship
The ancient practice of liturgical worship is filled with wonderful symbolism: colors, dressings, and implements that remind us of parts of our relationship with a holy and eternal God. The list that follows is not exhaustive, but it includes the most common symbols and explanations of their meanings. The intent here is to guide the worshipper into a deeper experience of the presence of God in the worship setting. We should be reminded that we use symbols because we like them and find them useful to teach us lessons about God. Often we have attributed symbolic meaning to practices we like for the sake of giving meaning to what we like.
Central to our worship space and to our understanding of who God is and what God has done for us is the Cross. To some the Cross is foolishness; to others it is a stumbling block. The Cross, the ancient Roman instrument of torture and death, is a great reminder of the trip Jesus made to a cross where He took on Himself the sin of all humanity and there paid the ultimate price for sin.
The Altar is traditionally the place of sacrifice. Throughout history, people of every tribe and nation have made sacrifices on altars. This was true of God's chose people who offered bulls, lambs, goats, doves, and grain in various forms of sacrifice, the primary being the sacrifice of atonement for sin. The Cross became the altar on which God offered His own Son, an act pre-pictured in the replacement of a ram for Isaac when Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his own son, as the final atonement for our sin.
White Altar Cloth
The Altar Cloth, traditionally one that has been sewn completely by hand, is symbolic of the empty grave cloth found by Jesus' disciples after His resurrection. The Altar Cloth reminds us that Jesus did not stay dead but that He rose from the grave victorious over sin and death to prove His power and seal our salvation.
One of the most notable symbols seen on entering the sactuary is the colors of the paraments hanging from the altar and pupit. The color of the pastor's stole matches that of the altar paraments. The colors used corrolate to the seasons of the Church Year.
- The Church Year begins four Sundays before Christmas with the season of Advent. The color of Advent is purple or royal blue reminding us of the kingship of Jesus.
- Advent is followed with Christmas. White symbolizes the majesty and holiness of Jesus our Lord and Savior.
- The season of Epiphany begins with the Day of Epiphany (January 6) and the celebration of the visit of the magi. An epiphany is a revelation, so during Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of God in Jesus; and we use green to symbolize His growing from birth into manhood.
- Fourty days before Easter plus Sundays is the season of Lent. We use the color purple to remind ourselves of Christ's suffering remembering that the cloak given to Jesus during his trial and scourging was purple.
- We use black on Good Friday. This day is called Good because we celebrate Jesus' death, for in His death is our life.
- The Lenten season is followed by Easter (The Resurrection of Our Lord) and the Sundays of Easter when we again proclaim the majesty of the resurrected One with white.
- There are a few occassions when we use red. One of them is Pentecost Sunday which separates the Easter season from the Pentecost season. We celebrate the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
- We use white again on Trinity Sunday and on the last Sunday of the Church Year, Christ the King Sunday.
- Between these two are the Sundays after Pentecost, Sundays when we focus on our growth in Christ. For this growth time we use green as we did when we focused on the time Jesus spent on this earth.
Two candles grace the Altar. These are symbolic of the "two persons of Christ," the Biblical teaching that Jesus was and is both God and Man. In a way mysterious to the human understanding, He was able to meld the two without confusing them retaining His divinity while experiencing full humanity. So it is that the Word who became Flesh was able to be the perfect human sacrifice to take away the sin of the world.
The robes worn by the pastor and assistants have evolved through the centuries so that it is even difficult to precisely trace the evolution. Vestments most likely find their origin in the spiritual robe of righteousness in which the believer is clothed. In recent western liturgical tradition the pastor wore a black cassock which was covered by a white surplice, the white of righteousness covering the black of sin. More recently the cassock and surplice combination has been replaced by the Alb. The Alb is perhaps a more comfortable and contemporary symbol of Baptism and, again, being clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
The pastor wears a Stole over his Alb. The color of the Stole matches the color of the paraments. It is a symbol of the yoke of Christ which is placed on him as he is ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
The eternal presence of God is often symbolized with an Eternal Light. This is a light that is traditionally a candle kept burning all the time. It is usually in a red vase, red showing the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.