BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (110) – Why does the liturgy need external signs and symbols?

Rev José Mario O Mandía 

Why can each one not just worship in his heart? Why do we need to use external signs and gestures in the liturgy?

Man is body and soul. He is not, as some philosophers have thought, a soul imprisoned in a body. The body is part of man’s being. Hence, in everything that man does, the body is somehow involved, whether it be in perceiving realities outside of himself (input), or expressing his feelings and thoughts (output). The CCC (no 1146) explains: [1] “As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols.

[2] “As a social being, man needs signs and symbols to communicate with others, through language, gestures, and actions. The same holds true for his relationship with God.” (CCC 1146)

[3] “God speaks to man through the visible creation. The material cosmos is so presented to man’s intelligence that he can read there traces of its Creator (cf Wisdom 13:1; Romans 1:19f; Acts 14:17). Light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, the tree and its fruit speak of God and symbolise both his greatness and his nearness.” (CCC 1147)

“Inasmuch as they are creatures, these perceptible realities can become means of expressing the action of God who sanctifies men, and the action of men who offer worship to God. The same is true of signs and symbols taken from the social life of man: washing and anointing, breaking bread and sharing the cup can express the sanctifying presence of God and man’s gratitude toward his Creator.” (CCC 1148) The benedictio that we have explained in BST 109 is expressed through these visible things.


Pope Benedict XVI, before his election as Roman Pontiff, gave an example of a symbol where men offer worship to God – kneeling. He wrote: “The bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning, which is precisely that of worship. Without the worship, the bodily gesture would be meaningless, while the spiritual act must of its very nature, because of the psychosomatic unity of man, express itself in the bodily gesture…. 

“When kneeling becomes merely external, a merely physical act, it becomes meaningless. On the other hand, when someone tries to take worship back into the purely spiritual realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the act of worship evaporates, for what is purely spiritual is inappropriate to the nature of man. Worship is one of those fundamental acts that affect the whole man. That is why bending the knee before the presence of the living God is something we cannot abandon….

“Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that, in our prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.” (“Theology of Kneeling,” in The Spirit of the Liturgy)


Another example is the position of the crucifix at Mass. “Facing east, as we heard, was linked with the ‘sign of the Son of Man,’ with the Cross, which announces the Lord’s Second Coming. That is why very early on the east was linked with the sign of the Cross. Where a direct common turning towards the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community. In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: ‘Conversi ad Dominum,’ ‘Turn to the Lord!’ In this way we look together at the One whose death tore the veil of the Temple – the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in his arms in order to make us the new and living Temple.

“Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than the Lord? This mistake should be corrected as quickly as possible; it can be done without further rebuilding. The Lord is the point of reference. He is the rising sun of history” (“The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer,” in The Spirit of the Liturgy).