Granted, words mean things; and words do things. But to understand the liturgy it is also important to know that words aren’t the only things that have meaning. “Written word” and “spoken word” aren’t the only kinds of word.
You convey messages not only by what you say or write, but also by tone of voice, body posture, facial expression, and gestures. Handwriting experts can find out a lot about you by studying your penmanship. The clothes you wear, the pictures and objects you decorate your personal space with, the things you throw away, and the charges on your credit card, are ways certain people can find out things about you.
Deaf people need not hear you (or even talk sign language with you) to figure out what kind of person you are. Blind people need not feel your face or hear your voice to recognize you. The way you walk, your smell, the care you take of your clothes, hair, skin, and nails, are all loaded with information about you.
You can say “Yes,” “No,” or “Don’t know,” even ask a question, by grunting in one of several ways, or by moving your head or shoulders. Some people are more sensitive to subtle messages. Some people are so tuned in that they get tense when you are tense, even if other people wouldn’t notice. Some people can be made to laugh or cry or even pass out in a dead faint, merely by looking at a picture.
Symbols, pictures, and gestures have meaning. Some symbols, pictures, and gestures tell the story of Christ. Some of the finest art in the western world depicts the persons and events of the Bible, the stuff of our faith such as Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. Paintings, mosaics, sculptures, and stained glass carry meaning to you, if you’re familiar with the story they tell. They preach God’s Word without making a sound. They’re like story books for people who can’t read. Until not so long ago, that was a good thing for almost everybody.
Some symbols are more abstract. There’s the sign of the cross, which points to Christ and how He died for you. It also points to baptism, where the sign of the cross was put on you and you were buried in Jesus’ death. There are the colors draped on the altar and pulpit and the pastor’s back, that change with the season of the Church Year. There are familiar images that you may not know the meaning of, like the Luther emblem with a black cross on a red heart in a white rose, or the Greek letters that look like XP or IHS. You may wonder what the Christmas tree means, why we burn candles, why some churches smell of incense, or what all those symbols embroidered on the vestments mean.
If any of these questions have ever crossed your mind, this blog may interest you. In future posts, look here for answers to such questions as “Why must we say Amen?”—“Is smelly incense just for Roman Catholics?”—“Why does the Pastor dress that way?”—and, “What do the colors mean?”