In drawing attention back to the nature and necessity of symbols in Christian initiation, we cannot fail to draw valuable resources from the scriptures, both old and new, so as to be able to place the origins of such symbols (Old Testament) and their relevance or significance in the Church (New Testament).
Having been of great concern to both the Eastern and Western Church, symbols have come to us, due principally to their ability to undergo a lot of growth and still remain unchanged through many cultures which it has encountered. But this is not to say that in handing it down, it has not been altered in some degree for it is a fact that while some worth in it has been stored, a great deal of their value has been lost due to abuses and other accidents of history. To this effect, it is noteworthy that Vatican II strongly suggested that the church go back to the underlying meaning of her ritual and sacramental symbols, and in the process do away with all that was added to them which impinge on their meaning.
It is quite sad that the very essence of liturgical symbolism has lost its meaning especially in the Western Church. This is even so when noted that symbols have on many occasions been reduced to mere signs. This is worrisome taking into account the fact that while symbols are a physical manifestation of that which they represent, signs are just pointers to the reality but bear within them no real intrinsic efficacy of the reality they point to. It is, in fact, in making a clear distinction between sign and symbol that the Church is able to safeguard the efficacy of the Sacraments and indeed all ritual actions for on the level of symbols, both sacraments and ritual actions are the same. The above anomaly of which we speak of can be traced back to the scholastics who in a bid to explain the faith made it into an abstract and other-worldly thing, stripping the symbols of their meaning as far as being physical manifestation of the spiritual realities and hence reducing them to mere pointers (signs) of the realities.
Symbolism in the church plays a far greater role than can be envisaged. It is known for a fact that there is no religion without symbols. In fact the very etymology of the word attests to this for symballo (Greek) means to cast together or unite. Thus symbols are one of the principal agents in building up and uniting a community of believers and secondly fulfilling the desire of each individual in building a union with God.
In reflecting on rite and symbol it is found out that they are complimentary in usage. A rite can be said to refer to a group of actions, words and gestures which have come down to us in celebrations and considered binding based on the traditions that established them. Seen as such we find out that rites depend on symbols for their value in that what is sought for by the rite is present in the symbol, which makes present the spiritual reality of the faith. Now this has a direct influence on the liturgy for rite and symbol are quite intrinsically bound up in the liturgy of the Church, properly seen as the public worship sanctioned by the Church for the glorification of her God and the sanctification of her members. Thus in making present the realities of what they represent, symbols ensure that the Church receives those graces which her Lord promised her upon the establishment of those symbols which could in the proper sense be categorised under rites, for they have become binding based on the tradition that established them. In reducing symbols to signs, the Church simply loses sight of the inherent graces gained from her rites immediately they are performed, so much so that these same ritual acts tend to be monotonous, repetitive, pointers to the realities she expects from her Lord, though in fact already received yet unknown.
Signs cannot be discounted as entirely unnecessary. To do that would simply make it close to impossible for the faithful to practise their [royal] priesthood. I say so because of the distinction between sign and symbol I gave above. We also know that in the liturgy, it is Christ who acts in His proper role as High-Priest, though through ordained ministers of the Church. So we say the priest acts in persona Christi. This is where the whole efficacy of the minister’s activity, both rite and symbol, lies. Apart from that they are just plain signs. But signs help the Church to, as it were, give the opportunity to her members who are not ordained, yet priests by virtue of their baptism, to live in the hope which their baptism entails. The signs which, in this context would be the many aids to holiness found in sacramentals, are not entirely without any graces, but they properly serve as pointers to the symbols which in turn make actually present and physical the spiritual reality. This is because Christ is able to work backwards, through the instrumentality of the symbols, to give to the signs a desired and fruitful fulfilment based on what particular thing the signs may represent. Hence, there is the need for the Church to sanction signs by encouraging her clergy to get involved in popular devotions and be ever more willing to part with blessings whenever necessary upon the faithful. The need for signs is also further strengthened by the fact that it is the ordained ministers who consecrate these signs before their usage, just like that done for symbols for liturgical worship, though less ritualised. But above all, signs help us understand better the impact and value of the symbols in that in pointing towards the efficacy inherent in the symbols, signs raise the level of appreciation for the sacraments carried out through the symbols and rites of the liturgy.
In conclusion, I would like to say that the very essence of the church as the kingdom of God, House-hold of faith, the Mystical body of Christ and the Bride of Christ, though designating titles, also makes the church a symbol. It is a symbol in that when we say, for instance that the church is the Mystical body of Christ, we are not just giving vent to a pious thought (a sign) but we are stating the fact that Christ has indeed and in fact taken the Church unto Himself for He wrought her salvation through His death and resurrection, establishing her as His legacy to the Father, who pre-destined this from of old. The Church thus becomes a sacrament for her presence makes manifest in actuality that which she represents, the community of Christ.