Recently I’ve been reading a fascinating book called “The Art of the Icon,” by Paul Evdokimov, which presents a theology of beauty from an Orthodox Christian perspective. As a relatively recent convert to the Orthodox Church (nearly 5 years, i.e., just long enough for one to realize how much he doesn’t know) I am always interested to hear a succinct, articulate explanation of the Church’s use of symbols since it’s use of such is wide and varied.
One learns very quickly on his entrance into Orthodoxy that the Orthodox use of “symbol” and popular culture’s use of “symbol” are two completely different things. The Orthodox still use the word in the classic sense, that is as something that contains the essence of what it portrays as opposed to merely serving as a sign of something else with no inherent or essential connection to that which it stands for (such as a mathematical symbol).
Paul Evdokimov uses the ancient etymology of the term to help draw out its meaning for those of us who still struggle to understand it all. He notes that in Greek both symbol (symbolos) and the devil (diabolos) have the same root word – bolos, which means “throwing.” Dia-bolos means to “throw apart” while sym-bolos means to “throw together.” Thus, “a symbol is a bridge which links two shores: the visible and the invisible, the earthly and the heavenly, the empiric and the ideal. The symbol makes it possible for the two to interpenetrate each other” (p.86).
I think one can say without error that without the symbol the interpenetration of the heavenly and the earthly simply does not happen. This is also what separates the so-called high-church view of the sacraments from the low-church view. For the former (Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans) the sacraments are an actual ‘happening’ of a spiritual-physical event; the baptismal waters and the chrism oil carry the very presence of the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist elements carry the very body and blood of Christ, the icons carry the very essence of the person(s) they portray, etc. For the latter (Protestant sects and others) all these things are mere signs of something else, signs which can be regarded or disregarded without effectual significance.
It would be fun to get into a lengthy discussion about the theological ramifications of holding one or the other views, but seeing as how my time is limited at the moment perhaps the comment section will ferret this out over time. Thanks for reading!