Catholicism is full of stories that tell truths and enable us to contemplate God’s relationship with us through the use of the familiar. They are literally the ‘stuff of legends’. If you contemplate the head of a pike (a kind of fish) according to German legend you will see a distinctive scene of the crucifixion. This is because at the moment of the crucifixion all the fish of the sea were so terrified that they dived deep into the water. The pike however was curious so emerged from the sea to view the event thus earning the enduring mark. Why tell the story? It reminds us to consider how we witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Do our actions tell of the Good News?
Doughnuts, those delightful sweet treats, have their origins in begging and praying. It was an old English custom that as payment for a “soul cake” beggars pledged to pray for the dead of the household. Originally they were made of shortbread but then baked dough with a hole in the middle. The hole created a circle shape that served to remind the eater to contemplate the cycle of life, death and eternal life as well as praying for the dead. How do we feed the hungry? Do we remember the dead in our prayers?
Christmas candy canes have the shape of a shepherd’s crook, reminding us of the first witnesses to the birth of Jesus who is the Good Shepherd. Although shepherd crook shaped candy was given to children attending Christmas ceremonies in Europe from the middle seventeenth century, the coloured stripes did not appear until early in the twentieth century. These red and white stripes represent Jesus’ purity and sacrifice. Not only can candy canes remind us of the importance of contemplating and sharing the reason behind Christmas they are also something to break and share.
Reading the Art
Religious Art particularly that of Christian Europe until the mid-nineteenth century, is often better understood if we can ‘read’ the symbols used. Some common ones are;
The Poppy is often seen in pictures of the crucifixion or the death of a saint. It is most often used to represent the sleep of death.
The Apple in the hand of Christ reminds us that he is the “second Adam” (1 Co 15:21-22) but in the hands of others it represents sin. This is because the Latin word for ‘apple’ is the same as the Latin word for ‘evil’. This dual meaning may also explain the forbidden fruit being depicted as an apple in pictures of the ‘Fall’ despite The Book of Genesis not naming it other than to say “the fruit” (Genesis 3).
The Lamb represents Jesus “the lamb of God” (Jn 1:29, Rev 5:12). At the central ritual of the Jewish Year – Passover a lamb was offered to remind the people of the greatest act of salvation recorded in the Old Testament the Exodus when the blood of the Lamb marked the homes of the chosen people. Thus Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as the Lamb of God is the ultimate act of salvation. If the lamb is depicted with or near a banner the risen Jesus who has conquered death is been revealed. If there is a cross and gash in its side the passion story is recalled. The judgement of Christ is shown if the Lamb is seated on a throne or a book.
This third century picture of Jesus as the ‘Good Shepherd’ can be seen in the Catacombs of Rome. Because early Christians were persecuted many of the earliest Christian images prior to this were ‘coded’ and therefore only the members of the Christian sect could understand them.