For many, a symbol is roughly defined as “an illustration whose purpose can be termed pedagogic or educational.” It merely points to or teaches about an idea, but offers no real connection to anything beyond itself.
In Orthodoxy, however, a symbol is a gateway or ‘window’ to something beyond; it truly connects us with that which is signified.
Icons, for example, are often called ‘windows to heaven’ in Orthodox literature. While many who are opposed to icons might object to this language, I even find it to be a bit ‘soft’ in its description. Icons are far more than windows into heaven, but are symbols that connect heaven and earth in a true and meaningful way. To call them ‘windows’ (to me) fails to emphasize the reality of our connection between the icon and that which is being signified in eternity. Icons as true symbols are actual, transformative connections between us and the world they depict.
The word for symbol in Greek is symbolon, meaning to bring two halves together, or a pledge between two parties. The opposite of this is to tear apart, divide, and separate. This opposite idea in Greek is diabolos, or where we get the English word for the devil. In other words, in biblical literature, the personification of division and separation is Satan. Jesus tells Peter and the other apostles that the “gates of hades” would never prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18). Hades is the place of death, and death has the devil as its author (Heb. 2:14). Jesus is telling them that the gates of death—the gates of division and schism—could never prevail in the life of the Church. The Church is the place where we are reconnected with God, not divided from him.
So why is this important? A proper and ancient understanding of symbol touches on a number of concepts related to Orthodoxy. One might even say it touches on everything, as it shapes the way an Orthodox Christian should view and experience the world around them.
Practically every Orthodox service begins with a prayer to the Holy Spirit:
O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present, filling all things . . .
As we worship a God who is “everywhere present, filling all things,” we have a world-view that is acutely aware of the immanence, transcendence, and activity (or ‘energies’) of God. The divine Logos is inter-penetrating and within all of creation—logos spermatikos, as both the Stoics and even Justin Martyr put it. Therefore, God has revealed himself to us in all of creation, if only we have eyes to see; to both see and experience the symbols he has provided us.
How, then, does this relate to the life of the Church?
First, a chief purpose of our worship is to more fully experience the presence and activity of God in the here-and-now.
The word for this experience is apocalypse—the ‘removal of the veil’ that seemingly separates us on earth from God’s throne room in heaven. Rather than seeing God’s Grace as a substance dispensed by the Church, it is the Church (through her mysteries) revealing to God’s people the deeper reality of the world around us. The Eucharist, for example, is not super-natural bread, wine, and water, but is rather an experience that shows us what these elements truly are in eternity, as received and set apart by the Church—the very Body and Blood of Christ. The Church is therefore a guide to a truly natural and eternal experience of the age to come, as recreated in Jesus and his death and resurrection. The veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom, and the Church is now ‘the Way’ to a fulfilled human existence.
Second, if God is “everywhere present, filling all things,” our attitude towards creation should be different than nominalism.
While sustainability or protecting the environment is frequently used as a means to corporate subsidies and profit, for us, it should go beyond mere sloganeering or vacuous ideas. We should treat all of creation with both care and reverence not for subsidies or publicity, but because all of creation is inter-penetrated with the divine energies of God. To treat an animal kindly is not far removed from showing reverence to an icon or another person. With eyes to see, the world is deified and revealed to be more than just another object for exploitation; to be more than molecules and atoms.
Third, we should view all of creation as a true symbol of heaven, and not icons or religious artifacts alone.
For us in the Church, icons and relics are some of the most obvious symbols of our connection between heaven and earth—but they are not the only ones. Through our worship and devotional practices, we are oriented in the right direction and offered the eyes to see, but that perspective must go beyond the walls of our churches and our icon corners.
The Orthodox Christian life is lived with one foot in heaven. Our parish buildings, altars, icons, holy things, and relics are tangible realities that point us to an eternity just slightly out of reach. The restoration and fulfillment of all things through Christ’s resurrection from the dead is evidenced more and more as we progress in ascetic or spiritual endeavors. This is why we often hear of spiritual elders or monastics having a sort of clairvoyance, a special communion with the world around them, or even bears and lions as companions. In their very person, a light is beginning to shine into the darkness of this present, evil age.
As Fr. Thomas Hopko has pointed out, Christ does not say that he comes to make all-new things, but to make all things new (Rev. 21:5); that is, to renew creation and to restore the communion between heaven and earth as formerly experienced in Paradise. We experience a foretaste of this glory in the life of the Church. Symbols in the Church are not mere illustrations, but are true connections between this present age and the age to come.
To divide between that age and our present is diabolos; it is against the unity and restoration God desires. Instead, we must lay aside all earthly cares so that we can be escorted by the invisible hosts and receive the true kingdom.