What do we do with our symbols?


One of the tasks for me, come Holy Week, is the burning of any remaining oil, before I pick up this year’s supply at the cathedral, come Maundy Thursday. I like a good fire (within legal parameters, she says, hastily) and quite enjoy the excuse.

It’s worth thinking, though, about what we do with our symbols when we’ve finished with them. Having moved something into the sacred sphere and said “this previously ordinary thing ‘a’, now represents for us the action of God ‘b’,” how do we move back into ordinary thing ‘a’ again?

Candles are an obvious example. It bothers me every Baptism I’ve ever done since Common Worship come in: we light a candle off the Pascal light, we say, “this represents the Light of Christ, which now shines in you”. Hurray! we all say, then the newly Baptised march to the back of the church and blow it out.candle

Bibles is another one. When Bibles – or prayer books – are battered and old, I cannot bring myself simply to chuck them in the recycling, not when they have for years been serving as a vehicle for the Word of God, so I’m left with armfuls of no longer useful books I don’t know what to do with.

In fairness, this may seem like a purely Anglo-catholic question, but I tentatively suggest it affects all of us who use symbols at any level. The way we finish using a symbol can affect how we think about it, how we use it while it is still active. Finishing a symbol with dignity and care can be, of itself, an act of prayer, giving our childish fumbling at the things of God back into the hands of the one whom we seek.

So : some suggestions for the ‘finishing’ of symbols –

Bibles and prayerbooks
I’ve tried burning them, but it’s really quite difficult. If they’re beyond use, why not bury them? If they were given in remembrance of folk, a small act of remembrance can be done at the same time.

This is the easiest – a nice barbecue or bonfire will burn up the unwanted oil (care is needed not to burn yourself at the same time). Themes of the Holy Spirit, and preparation for Holy Week can be woven into any prayers we want to offer in the quiet of our back gardens …

Lots of churches have a place where people can leave prayer requests, often in the form of notes on a board. We can then – if so inclined – bring these prayers up to the altar (aka table) with the offertory, bringing the petitions of strangers into the heart of our Eucharist.

Any water I’ve set aside for sacred purposes, (for Baptism, for example, or even for washing altar linen) I throw out onto the grass, rather then send down into the sewers with the other unspeakable things that have gone before.

Changing the lightCandles
Godly Play has a nice little theme about ‘changing’ the light of candles, so that ‘instead of being just in one place, it fills the room’.

Obviously, like all liturgy – and indeed theology – this can be taken to silly extremes, so that we are reluctant to do anything with anything because we won’t be able to throw it away after.
But what difference would it make to our worship if we thought about the meaning we are giving to the things we are using, and what unspoken signals we give by how we treat them?


Author: @RoffenWorship

A Slightly Welsh Priest

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