The first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy describes the Jewish practice of wearing phylacteries (small leather boxes containing scrolls with Scripture passages) on the wrist and forehead. Jewish people wear them, especially during morning prayer, as a sign and reminder of God’s deliverance of them from the slavery of Egypt. Phylacteries were also an outward sign that they had interiorized the mandate of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” [Deut. 6:4-9 and 11:13-21]) and had let the words shape their living. The same passage was also mounted on the doorposts of the house and they would reverently touch the scroll as they entered and left the home.
Religious people today often wear pendants, medals, and other symbols of faith as reminders of what they believe. These symbols also serve as a sign of their commitment to and relationship with Jesus Christ. Most common among these symbols for Christians are crosses or crucifixes, medals (in honor of their patron [or other favorite] saint), scapulars, and even the habit worn by men and women religious.
In the Roman Empire, the cross was a sign of an ignominious death. It took a while for the cross to be recognized as a symbol of Christ’s triumph over sin and death, and for us to celebrate the “exaltation” of the Holy Cross.
Religious symbols are sometimes misunderstood or even mistaken for jewelry by non-believers. The cross, which is my community symbol, often evokes the comment, “I love your necklace. Where can I get one of those?” At that point I gently explain that it is a symbol of the religious community to which I belong, and if they want one — it will cost them their life — in service to the church. Seriously, for those of us who wear religious symbols, they are a constant reminder that we are beloved sons and daughters of God. For others who recognize them, they are witnesses to and reminders of God. And for those who don’t understand their nature and purpose, these symbols have a catechetical as well as a witness value.
Religious symbols are not limited to things we wear. Our churches are filled with images in stained glass windows and on walls and ceilings, statues, and other images and religious artifacts. Our homes often have a crucifix, sometimes with a “sick call” set containing some things used when the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is celebrated at home. Others have pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or some depiction of guardian angels in children’s rooms. And at special seasons, we have the Advent wreath and Christmas crèche or blessed palms as reminders of the mysteries of our faith. These also serve as catechetical tools to help explain different aspects of our religious belief and practice to our children.
This Sunday, perhaps you could look at your home to see what symbols of faith are present — and whether they still remind you of God’s love and the difference this has made in your living.
Sr. Rehrauer is the diocesan director of Evangelization and Worship.