This post is in honor of Karl Rahner, whose reflections on the Sacred Heart of Jesus led to one of the most ground-breaking essays in 20th century sacramental theology, “The Theology of the Symbol” (Theological Investigations vol. 4, 221-52). Today, 19 days after Pentecost, is the Feast of the Sacred Heart.
In some sense, Rahner’s goal in this brief essay is to erase the mistaken dichotomy between “symbols” and “utilitarian” objects. We tend to have a standing assumption that a symbol is a symbol precisely because it doesn’t serve any real purpose — a bell is a bell because it performs a function by making a sound, but a bell on a Christmas tree, without a clapper, is merely a symbol. See how quickly that “merely” slipped in there? Already, symbolism becomes minimal when one takes this route!
Rahner overturns this cultural assumption by approaching symbol in three different ways. The first is the doctrine of the incarnation. For Rahner, the Trinity is the ultimate source of all symbolism. Symbols exist because the Word is the image of the unseen God, and because human beings are created to know the world through symbols so that they can come to know that God through the mission of the Word. So somewhere, ultimately, symbols both “are” and “are not”. The early church rejected the notion that Jesus was “like” the Father in being because if the “is not” outweighed the “is”, the Word could not be the image of the Father, and thus God’s revelation does not actually reveal anything about God! If the word is the ultimate symbol of the Father, however, and in the incarnation the Word reveals himself, then the incarnation shows us the true nature not only of the Word, but also of the Father.
The second (much more approachable) way that Rahner approaches symbol is through the image of the body. Your body, Rahner argues, is both uniquely useful (just try getting along without it) and uniquely symbolic (the privileged representation of “you” — for more on this, see the work of Mary Douglas). This is actually quite easy to verify: if your body can do something, “you” can do it; if your body suffers pain, you feel that pain, etc. What’s more, it is the useful functions of your body — eating, drinking, washing, grasping, seeing — that are our most powerful symbols. Combining this with the first approach, we can see that the actions of Christ in the body in the incarnation are the most perfect symbol for God’s love (or the most pure revelation of God’s nature). When Jesus eats with sinners, heals the sick, or dies on the cross, his body tells us (through the two most perfect kinds of symbolism: Jesus’ body as a symbol for his whole self and the Word as the image of the Father) what God’s salvation is.
This brings us to the third approach: the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On my first reading, I felt that here the essay went sideways. “Say what now?” I expected a move to the sacraments (traditionally the extension in time of Jesus’ body into the body which is the church). Instead, Rahner reflected on the Sacred Heart. Slowly, I came to realize how profound this move was. The heart, which we speak of as the seat of the personality, is underappreciated in post-Enlightenment modernism (which privileges the mind or even the brain instead).
In the pediatric intensive care unit in Chicago where my two-month-old son was trying to recover from congestive heart failure in 2006, the gap between useful and symbolic contracted, shivered, and finally disappeared altogether. Those peaks and valleys that showed his heart beating, beating, and his breath coming and going became his life, the seat of his personality, the record of the breath of God that had sealed him at baptism. I watched him struggle against the respirator to breathe on his own and knew it: That’s him. He’s still in there.
In his hours on the cross Christ’s heart, too, became the real symbol (one of Rahner’s preferred terms) for the salvation he had to offer. In its real, physical piercing by the lance, the heart of Jesus really and mysteriously gave for the church his blood and water, the sacramental life of the church. In order for our symbols to remain real symbols, we need to return to their function, because their function makes them symbolic.
This year at Holy Thursday my feet were washed. The priest, visiting from our sister parish in Kenya, not only poured water over my feet but really washed them, with a serious and humble industriousness that suggested that my feet were very dirty. This made me realize how (symbolically) right he was.
That symbol not only represented, but shone. It was, like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, my own body and yours, and the Word of God, a real symbol.