Eucharist - Symbol or Sign? Why It Matters
The biggest misconception about the sacraments is that they are merely symbolic representations of God’s presence. The sacraments are real and powerful. The sacraments are a matter of eternal life and eternal death. This is why the vocabulary about sacraments matters.
There must be a clear distinction made between the meaning of the word sign and the meaning of the word symbol. One of the great Catholic American authors Flannery O’Connor captured this distinction as she recalls a conversation she had shortly after her conversion to Catholicism.
“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” -Flannery O’Connor
What O’Connor was saying is that symbols are always duds. They can only remind the brain about a past encounter with some abstract reality. Signs, on the other hand, are indicators of a present reality. An example of the most common symbol of love is a heart. However, a sign of love is a kiss.
Signs are connected to the present and they signify something, not just symbolize something that has been or something abstract. Signs are more active, and more personal; symbols are more inert, and more universal. While symbols remind us of abstract ideas, signs are connectors to reality. They can indicate or ‘signify’ a change in reality. Gray clouds and a wet ground are a sign of rain, while a picture of an umbrella with rain above it are a symbol of the idea of rain. This kind of symbol is used by weather forecasters etc..
The words symbol and sign both have a place when discussing sacraments. If there were no spiritual effect, if sacraments were not efficacious, then the word symbol would be sufficient. But since sacraments bring about a spiritual change and not just remind us of the idea, then they must be called signs. A sign can indicate the unseen change that the sacrament brings about. We go so far as to say ‘the sign becomes what it signifies’. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, they connect us to the reality of the transformative encounter with Christ. For example bread and wine become what they signify-the ‘real presence’ of Jesus’ body and blood, soul and divinity. It is Christ who acts in the sacraments and communicates the grace they signify.
This is why the CCC 1131 uses the words sign and signify in relation to sacraments not symbol and symbolize… “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”
In the sacraments there are symbols too. The secondary “signs'' can be called symbols because they are not active but are merely reminders of an abstract idea. They serve to enhance the sacredness, to inflame the imagination and to support the narrative. However, they never become what they symbolize.
An example of a secondary sign or a sacramental symbol is the white garment or the candle in Baptism. These are beautiful symbols that point to a change that has happened to the person baptized. However, they did not bring about that change. There are no ‘efficacious symbols’. This is why I say symbols are always duds. On the contrary sacraments as a whole are not duds. “Sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are ‘the masterworks of God’ in the new and everlasting covenant” (CCC 1116) .
So the bread and wine in the Eucharist become what they signify not what they symbolize- they become the Real Presence of Christ, not the symbolic presence.