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Symbol Basics

Symbols are objects, actions or persons that evoke meanings beyond their literal significance.  They are literal, but they more than literal as well.

Where a long explanation might satisfy the mind, poets use symbols because they can evoke complex ideas in the imagination without all the explanation.  Sometimes a symbol carries a single meaning. but they can also signify many.

There are conventional symbols–we all know that the red rose is a symbol of romantic love and that a wedding ring is a symbol of faithfulness and unity.  But sometimes symbols are contextual.  The One Ring is a complex symbol found in the context of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The Bible is full of symbols.  Joseph’s coat was a literal coat, but it was much more than that–it symbolized his father’s preferment.  The Hebrews regularly piled stones up to commemorate significant events, like the crossing of the Jordan River.  Elisha wanted Elijah’s cloak, not because he was cold, but because of what it symbolized.

One of the most significant symbols in Christianity is the bread and the wine of Communion.

“Behold The Lamb”

“Behold the Lamb” by Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, and Stuart Townend makes more use of symbolism than do many other Communion songs.   Here is one verse of this song:

Verse 2
The body of our Saviour Jesus Christ
Torn for you eat and remember
The wounds that heal the death that brings us life
Paid the price to make us one
So we share in this Bread of Life
And we drink of His sacrifice
As a sign of our bonds of love
Around the table of the King

The bread in communion is symbolic.  It is literal bread (or wafers, or crackers, or gluten-free Rice Chex), but it is more.  Symbolically it is the body of Jesus that was, in the words of the song, “torn.”  The literal “wounds” and actual “death,” symbolically “heal” and “bring us life” respectively.  The sharing of bread and wine is a symbolic reflection of  “the bonds of love” that unite us in Christ’s “sacrifice.”

Compressed into Symbol

The cool thing about symbols is that meaning is compressed into them and then it expands out from them.

All kinds of meanings are crammed into the object, action or person.  Into the communion symbols, all the meanings of Christ’s Crucifixion are compressed into the bread and wine.

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Jesus begins the process when he says, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.”   He speaks of his body being “broken” and his blood “poured out.”  The events that follow these statements, called The Passion of Christ, make symbolic meaning of bread and wine.  This is a partial list of all that is compressed into the Communion elements:

  • Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
  • Judas’ betrayal
  • The scourging and crown of thorns
  • The struggle toward Golgotha
  • The nails in his hands and feet
  • The mockery of the onlookers

The literal objects of bread and wine contain all this and more.  And then all this compacted meaning expands.

Expanded by Experience

The communion symbols are packed with meaning, and, simultaneously, they are expanded by the personal experience that every worshiper brings to the Lord’s table.

  • We know that, had we been there, we might have been numbered among those who shouted, “Crucify Him!” (Luke 23:21).
  • We know that, by word or deed or omission of word or deed, we have said, “I don’t know the man!” (Matthew 26:72).
  • We know the place from which Jesus cried, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me!” (Matthew 27:46).
  • We have prayed, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom'” (Luke: 23:42).
  • We desperately want to hear the words, “You will be with me in paradise” (Luke:23:43).

The action of compression and expansion that comes with symbols can be a very powerful experience.   The songs we sing in preparation for partaking in Communion can enhance the experience of communion by helping us unpack these traditional symbols.

Some might argue that congregants don’t think about these things in communion, or while singing songs about communion.  I’m not sure of my response.  I have a few:

Some do.

Why not?

If there is some value in this type of experience, perhaps worship leaders can teach engage symbols in this way.

It will lead to deeper worship.

Singing Symbols

This compression and expansion occur whenever we sing symbols.

When we sing symbols, it’s obviously not just our emotions that are engaged, nor even our minds–our imaginations enter into the act of worship.

We don’t sing symbols very often.  So I don’t have another, non-Communion example of effective use of symbol in a praise and worship song, So I’ll provide another example of the use of symbol, let us turn to one stanza from Bob Dylan’s “Hard Rain.”

And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son?
And what did you hear, my darling young one?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

The speaker’s son is “blue-eyed” symbolically suggests innocence.

In line 5, the son has “Heard one person starve” but “many people laughing.”  What or whom is compressed into the symbolic one person who starved?  Into the symbolic many?  How is this symbol is expanded into your experience?

In line 6 a poet, symbolic of wisdom or the ability to see what others cannot, is dead.

Think about that clown in line 7.  What does the clown represent?  What is significant about his being alone.  In an alley.  Crying?

This rain is not hard just in the literal sense.

Compression and expansion.

With almost a symbol per line, no one can hear this song the same way each time they listen to it.

I’m not suggesting this density of symbolism in all of our praise and worship songs, but you can see how even one can add powerfully to a song.  Symbolism is a powerful, and underutilized tool in popular, contemporary praise and worship music.

It is my hope that some future songwriters would take on the challenge and add symbolism to their writing toolbox.

Posts in this series:

The Poetry of Worship: The Sacrifice of Praise (1)

The Poetry of Worship: Diction (2)

The Poetry of Worship: Developing a Poetic Ear (3)

The Poetry of Worship: Unity and  Focus (4)

The Poetry of Worship: Avoid the Abstract (5)

The Poetry of Worship: The Magic of Metaphor (6)

The Poetry of Worship: Sound (7)

The Poetry of Worship: Engaging the Heart and More (9)