Liturgy Lines: Primary Liturgical Symbols

by Elizabeth Harrington.

This post originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on February 24th, 2013.

A common practice that has crept into our worship is the layering or multiplication of symbols. For example, I visited a church during Advent which had a wreath surrounded by candles, a banner with candles appliqued on it, the paschal candle and a Christmas crib all crowded together in the small sanctuary.

We live in a culture which assumes that more is better and new is best. When this principle is applied to liturgy, the primary symbols are lost amid a sea of other visuals and extraneous environment competes with ritual.

The primary liturgical symbols are those objects of our faith that have been part of the tradition for many years, “many” being a lot more than 20 – or even the 50 years since the second Vatican Council! My list of primary symbols would consist of cross, altar, ambo, bread, wine, font, water, oil, paschal candle, Book of Gospels, incense, liturgical colour and vestments. Season ritual symbols such as palms and ashes would be added to this primary list at the appropriate time.

These symbols demand something from us and call us to deeper faith. They are not decorative accoutrements but are present to support our ritual prayer. They must take priority over everything else in the worship space and anything added to the environment should point towards these symbols, not away from them.

The importance of these primary symbols needs to be reflected in their quality. Each parish should aim to have beautiful pieces which are worthy of carrying the weight of the symbol. This means that parishes will need to budget for good quality furnishing, vestments, and vessels.

The wealth of Jewish faith communities is judged according to the number of Torah scrolls they own. The scrolls must be hand printed on vellum (animal hide) and encased in elaborately decorated velvet covers. Each one is worth thousands of dollars. When a scroll becomes too old and fragile for use in the synagogue, it is reverently buried. Perhaps we have something to learn from this love and respect for objects of worship.

Environment is also a reminder of the paschal mystery of life, death and resurrection. That is why artificial flowers are not the optimal choice for decorating churches. Part of the symbolism of fresh flowers lies in the fact that they fade and die and that we need to appreciate their beauty while it lasts. This applies equally to candles. Many parishes use candles with an oil wick inside them. I can understand why – they always look new and they don’t drip wax on the altar cloth. Part of the symbolism of candles, however, is that they burn down, giving us a sense of time passing, of the cycles of the liturgical year, of all the baptisms and funerals that have been celebrated whilst the wax has melted.

The keys to environment that supports ritual are: keep it simple, highlight the primary symbols, use real rather than synthetic materials, and aim to acquire the best quality objects and most beautiful symbols the community can afford.

“Liturgy Lines” are short 500-word essays on liturgical topics written by Elizabeth Harrington, Liturgy Brisbane’s education officer. They have been published every week in The Catholic Leader since 1999.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Harrington, Archdiocese of Brisbane.


  1. I remember reading Andrew Greeley’s view that Catholics live in a world of enchantment, and that the symbols and signs that saturate our faith and worship are portals into that world. I believe he termed it the “Catholic imagination” , and also used the term “Sacramental imagination”.

    I recall a simple (albeit non-liturgical) example Greeley once gave: there are two small Catholic colleges in the western suburbs of Chicago. The Dominican one formerly was known as Rosary College, while the Benedictine one was St. Procopius. A number of years ago now, the colleges changed their names to Dominican University and Benedictine University respectively. Greeley thought that was a shame: rosaries and saints are symbols that fire the Catholic imagination and help make a world of spiritual depth present to us. Greeley thought the names of religious orders a good deal less resonant in this respect.

    My recollection is that, from this point of view, Greeley thought a multiplicity of symbols in churches was not a bad thing. Walls and ceilings covered with paintings and stuccoes of saints and angels, multiple instances of the Blessed Virgin, candles everywhere – this riot of signs and symbols found in many of our older churches provided a potent field of signs and symbols that beckoned worshipers into this world of spiritual depth.

    I believe Greeley would have disagreed with the author of this post that “a layering and multiplicity of symbols” was something to regret – he would have thought it rather something to celebrate. And I don’t think he would have concurred with the author’s advice to “keep it simple”. Greeley belonged to the “keep it lavish” school. Or so I recall.

  2. Focusing on the first paragraph, I agree that (a) the sanctuary should be free of clutter, and (b) decoration should be seasonally appropriate. In the example cited, what were the Christmas crib and the Paschal candle doing in the sanctuary during Advent?

    There is an unfortunate tendency in some places to jam all the decoration into the sanctuary instead of spreading it to other parts of the church (e.g., seasonal banners hung on walls or pillars).

    1. @Robert ADDINGTON:
      I must agree with this. I like to think of the church (building) as a “body”, just as the Church (People of God) is the Body of Christ. Well, you don’t pile all your clothes on your head, do you? Yet this is often the case in churches: the baptismal font is in, or almost in, the sanctuary, so the paschal candle is in the sanctuary all year. Everything is done “up front”, as if the church were a theatre. Even confessions are heard in the sanctuary. Attention-getting overheads are prjected on the sanctuary wall, even during the Liturgy of the Word – sometimes even during he Eucharistic prayer – increasing the likeness to a theatre. The crib is under the altar, and the advent candles beside it, jostling for attention with the paschal candle, and both obscuring the ambo. This is not what the liturgical reform called for or envisaged …

  3. This reminds me of the danger of “multiple of symbols”. Yes, I agree that most parishes tend to crowd everything into the “sanctuary” so that it can been seen by people. Yet, the entire worship space IS the sanctuary and what about “experiencing” the symbols vs seeing them? At our Taize services, prayer stations which may contain icons, candles, prayer cards, etc. and are scattered throughout the church. Advent wreaths, mangers, etc are not liturgical per se and yet they take a central role in our parishes. I was taught in liturgical studies that the ambo and altar should never be blocked or hidden by decorations, etc.
    My experience has taught me most places do not know proper liturgical guidelines and having a liturgical expert in house certainly will help parishes in their decision making regarding the placement of objects.

  4. I did use the oil candles at my parish only for our processional candles which made them much safer when being carried than wax. Otherwise, all other candles were real with a beeswax mixture.

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