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Secret of liturgy is trust the symbols.

When I turned on the television, Oakland was on fire.

The local channels had suspended normal programming to cover the fire, which was lighting houses like matchsticks and smearing a black gash through the hills. The reporters were interviewing evacuees, some of whom already had seen their homes evaporate. There were interviews with exhausted firefighters, the mayor and others.

Every few moments, though, the coverage shifted to the fire itself. Commentators speculated on the values of the houses that bent and swayed and oozed to the ground like molten liquid. We were told how devastating this was for the homeowners, who had no chance to recover personal belongings.

Then one channel did something different: It focused without commentary on one modest home. We could see canyons of orange flame heave through the building. We could hear the bullwhip crack of wood exploding into nothing.

No one needed to tell us what a home represents -- a family, love, the past, the future. The work of a generation or two gone in seconds. No one needed to explain how much it hurts to lose not just the structure but the photographs, the heirlooms, the gifts, the table around which the family had eaten for years. This most poignant moment in the broadcast happened through images, without explanation.

"Let the symbols speak," liturgists tell us. "Trust the symbols." Trust that symbols will express the experience they represent. They need no explanation. Trust, also, the people. We can experience the symbols ourselves. We can experience the meaning of a table, bread, wine, water, light and fire, just as much as we know what a house represents.

And we can more genuinely respond to the symbols when we're not told how we're supposed to respond. Suppose, as the camera focused on the burning home, someone had interrupted and said, "That is a house. It represents a family's life and work. This is sad. You should feel sad now." Such commentary would rob both the symbol and the viewer of involvement in an encounter.

Fire can represent many things -- wonderful things like enlightenment, illumination, protection, warmth, passion. It also can represent destruction, war, evil and pain. There is not one right answer when we are presented with an image and not a word.

Symbols, as I understand them, are powerful because they appeal to the imagination and draw forth from us what is happening in the deeper parts of our lives. Symbols give expression to the things we experience but can't contain with verbal descriptions. We use symbols to articulate the "more" that takes place in us -- the beauty, the terror, the hope and the fear.

Liturgy, at its best, can help us uncover and interpret our experience of life and death, of brokenness and wholeness. It can do this best if it presents the symbols of the paschal mystery to us, trusting those symbols to speak to us and trusting us to respond in the way we need to. This will intensify and sustain our experience of the Christian life, as well as validate our identity as the body of Christ, the one who rises from the ashes of human suffering to give life to the world.

Bill Peatman, who is studying ministry, lives in Sunnyvale, Calif.
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Author:Peatman, Bill
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 11, 1992
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