As all of us know, to say that something is symbolic is to claim that some reality, the symbol, carries inside itself much more than what appears on its surface. For instance, the wedding rings on the fingers of a couple married 50 years hold within them so much more than the glints coming off their gold. Lodged within these rings is a power, the power of the love, dedication and sacrifice of a half century of two lives spent together.
Two events show up in the New Testament which belong in this category of symbols, this world of observable objects or actions carrying within themselves layers and layers of deeper meaning. These two are the deeds of anointing and baptizing. In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke relates how God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and Power. St. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus was baptized, immediately followed by the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him.
A pair of symbolic actions, both bearing within themselves a depth of energy and meaning on which believers have drawn for centuries. It’s worthwhile to look more closely at this pair and consider the inner substance they contain and the hidden power they radiate.
Anointing – the oil rubbed onto the skin. It sinks in, penetrates beneath the surface and mixes with the body’s fluids. Here it means that the Spirit of God is filling this person Jesus with God’s very own Self. As Jesus speaks and acts, it’s God speaking and acting. Then there’s the baptism bearing within it something conveyed explicitly by the words that follow: “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” “Beloved” is the expression opening us to the underlying significance of this symbolic action. What’s revealed in it is the love of the Father for the Son, the inner meaning of Jesus’ baptism. This ritual, going down into the water and coming up out of it, carries the love of God to Jesus – and to us.
It’s precisely that all-encompassing love which is lodged inside those key symbolic actions in our practice of faith – the sacraments. Each in its own way is a bearer of God’s presence, a carrier of God’s love. Each is aiming that key word “Beloved” directly at you and me, is conveying that saving message, “You are my beloved son or daughter in whom I am well pleased.”
Just as those wedding rings carry the truth of that couples’ fidelity, each of the sacraments bear within themselves the richness and density of the Father’s words, “You are my Beloved.”
In this light, for instance, what if you and I were to approach the sacrament of reconciliation confession with this mentality – hearing its deepest message as “you are loved?” What if, as another instance, we come to the Eucharist with that very same expectation – sharing in it we are coming into living touch with that most freeing and cherished of truths, “You are my beloved?” What if we were to look at the services we Vincentians offer and recognize them as symbolic activities, ministries carrying within themselves ringing echoes of God’s assurance of love.
Symbols can be empty and carry nothing. But when symbols are genuine, they carry and unlock the depths of what they are symbolizing. The claim is that at the heart of our sacraments and our ministries, lodged at their core, is the rock-solid, foundational assurance arising from God’s heart. “You are my beloved daughter and son. In you I am well pleased.”