I love the written word. When I spend the time to think about it, I am amazed at how the written word can transport me into realms of imagination and instruction. But as great as text is at conveying information, it is a slow process. You could use words to describe Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but why do that in text? Symbols, in this case the musical notation on the score, can convey a richness of information in a way that is both simple and concise.
Look around and realize how many symbols surround you. A symbol tells you it is safe to cross as its color turns green. A symbol identifies the nation where you live as it flaps and flutters in the wind. A symbol tells a military person that the stranger approaching is an officer, another that he is a pilot, a third identifies the group he works with, and a cluster of symbols on his chest lists the awards and honors he has received. All of these things could have been done with words, but we have chosen symbols to convey these meanings.
There is a common phrase uttered today: “words mean something.” Well, symbols mean something, too. Ask any youth studying for her driving test what an eight-sided red-and-white sign means. She should know. If she doesn’t, take the cell phone out of her hand and gently direct her to the driving instructions manual. She needs to do some studying if she expects to pass her test.
We can recognize symbols almost instantly. They seem to reach through our eyes and right to the brain. How often do you consciously recognize that the traffic light has turned green? Or is it just something that you react to instinctively as it changes from red? In the U.S., we commonly see our traffic lights hanging red on top of yellow on top of green, but they hang side-by-side in some European nations. That doesn’t matter because it is the color that is important to the symbol, not the position. As a driver, you could be dropped into any road on the globe, and you would know when to stop and start at any traffic light. The symbol is used practically everywhere.
But what happens when the symbol is something with which we are unfamilar? If the traffic lights were all the same blue color and illuminated a squiggle, a line, and a circle, which one would mean “go”? If we don’t know what a symbol means, we are missing out on a level of communication, just as a deaf person misses the stream of information coming out of a radio. Being an Air Force brat myself, I’m familiar with the American military ranks, but what is the rank of a British officer with three diamonds on his shoulder? What about the other officer with just a crown? Who outranks whom, and who salutes whom? And how do they compare to American ranks? If we don’t know the symbols being used, we won’t know. Fortunately, I’m a computer geek, and I know where to find these answers.
Symbols and symbolism can change over time, but some symbols resist change and stay the same. You can see both examples in the Bible. Christ often taught in parables because a parable is a way for symbolic information to be given. Those who lack the understanding or the background to decipher the symbol will only hear stories about seeds, birds, rich men, and bread. But those who understand the symbols will understand the underlying meaning. Christ’s words about putting new wine in old bottles doesn’t make sense to our 21st Century ears, but the meaning changes if we know that the bottles of Christ’s day were made not from glass or metal but from the skins of animals. These animal-skin bottles would stretch as the wine fermented inside, and if new wine were placed inside to ferment, these old skin bottles would stretch and break.
Some of the symbolism in the Bible is harder to understand, but it is there for those who are willing to dig for it. I remember sitting in a small meeting going over the instruction for pronouncing a leper clean as found in the 14th chapter of Leviticus. The first time I had read the chapter, it was just some bizarre instructions about blood and birds, red cloth and herbs. It was hard to believe that this was something given by God to the descendants of Israel. It appeared more like some pagan ritual than a law of God.
But then the instructor read what Paul had written about the law of Moses being a shadow of things to come and a schoolmaster to bring the people to Christ. It was there as a guide and a shadow of what was to come in Christ’s life and sacrifice. And then we spent the next three hours going over this chapter verse by verse, talking about what each item and action meant, and how these tied into an overriding symbolism of Christ’s then-future sacrifice that would make all men clean who came unto Him.
Since my dear wife has been away from home, I have been doing the laundry. Every time I break out the Shout to do some spot cleaning, I am reminded of the promise in Isaiah: “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” As I put the soap into the wash, the symbolism of being made clean through the Atonement of Christ echoes in my thoughts as I go through the actions.
A powerful message can be given in the smallest of actions, and the symbolism can provide for serious contemplation that could last a lifetime. That is the beauty of symbols.