A Guide to Symbolism in Worship
The symbols and ceremonies of the church are never meant to be intimidating or to exclude from full participation those who are not familiar with them. Few of these symbols or actions are required to worship God. We use them because they help us in our worship by allowing us to use our bodies, to respond and participate in the liturgy even when there are not words to say, and because they connect us to many ages of men and women in the church who may have used different words in their worship but would still recognize, for instance, the Sign of the Cross as a symbol that unites us.
Water can be found in little bowls (called stoups) near every door of the church. Water is the symbol of Baptism, the Sacrament by which people are made Christians and are initiated into the household of God in Jesus Christ. Many people dip their fingers into the Holy Water on their way into and out of the church and make the Sign of the Cross on themselves as a reminder of their own Baptism, their membership in God's household.
The Font, by the main doors of the church, is filled with water whenever there are Baptisms and at Easter, for it is here that water is poured over every new member of the household of Jesus Christ.
Sign of the Cross
The Sign of the Cross is frequently made in one way or another in the liturgy. It is traditionally made with the fingertips of the right hand, tracing the shape of a Cross over one's body by touching first the forehead, then the breast, then left shoulder and finally the right shoulder - the four points of a Cross. When we do this we silently affirm our faith in Jesus, whose death on the Cross was the decisive act of God's salvation of humanity.
You will often see a priest make the Sign of the Cross over something: like the offering plates, the bread and the wine of Communion, and over the People of God in the final Blessing at every Mass. In this way, we symbolize our prayer that God will bless that which is indicated by the action.
At the announcement of the proclamation of the Gospel, many people make the Sign of the Cross in a very specific way: by using the thumb of the right hand to trace a very small cross over forehead, lips and heart. This action embodies a prayer that we may embrace the message of the Gospel with our minds, proclaim it with our lips and believe it deeply in our hearts.
Bowing is a gesture of reverence. Most often we use a simple bow, which is just a slight, forward inclination of the head, to show our reverence for God. It's customary to bow when walking past an altar, or when the Cross is carried by in procession. Many people bow their heads at the mention of the Name of Jesus - not as proof that they are especially religious, but as an act of reverence toward the One who gave his life for the salvation of the world.
Genuflecting is a more striking form of reverence: it is the act of touching one knee (usually the right knee) to the ground. It is customary to genuflect when one goes near to the Blessed Sacrament, that is, the consecrated Bread and Wine of the Eucharist in which we believe God makes the real presence of his Son Jesus known to his people. Since the consecrated Bread and Wine of the Blessed Sacrament are kept at all times in a special place just to the left of the High Altar, many people genuflect when passing in front of the altar, and hence, near to the place where the Sacrament is reserved.
The Sanctuary Lamp is the large lamp that hangs just over and in front of the High Altar. Its white candle burning indicates that the Blessed Sacrament is in its usual place and represents to us the presence of our Lord Jesus in our midst. The seven other lamps that hang in front of the altar remind us of St. John the Divine's vision of the throne of God, before which seven lamps are burning.
The Altar is not only the table on which the celebration of this Mass takes place; it is a symbol with many dimensions of meaning, for it is the place where we remember the act of perfect love of Christ's offering of himself for the sake of the world. The altar is inscribed with five crosses, which suggests that the altar itself symbolizes Christ's body and his presence among us. It is when we gather at the altar in our worship, that Jesus forms us - and the whole church - into his Body. The altar is most often covered (vested) with a cloth of suitable dignity in a color that signifies the season of the church year. You will see that special care is taken with how we act at the altar, and with sacred vessels that are placed on it.
Incense is a compound of resins and natural scents that is burned on charcoal. Its use in worship is very ancient and has several different symbolic suggestions. It is the one offering made in the liturgy that allows us to use even our sense of smell in the worship of God. It is often said to signify the prayers of God's people rising up to God. It is always regarded as an offering of something special to God, and the smoke carries ancient connotations of purification. When we "cense" something (that is, when we direct the smoke of burning incense toward a particular person or thing) we are honoring that person or thing and indicating our intention that it be set apart for God's purposes. In the Mass, we do this not only with the Gospel book, the Altar, the Bread and Wine, and the clergy; we also cense the congregation who represent the whole people of God, set apart during our time of worship for the praise of God.
Candles always represent God's presence among us, and particularly remind us that Christ's living presence with us brings light to the world. Candles are always lit on the Altar for just this reason (since we no longer rely on them to see!). A special candle, called the Paschal Candle is lit at the Great Vigil of Easter and burns in a place of honor for the 40 days from Easter to the Ascension reminding us that by his resurrection Christ assured us that light would always overcome darkness. At other times of the year the Paschal Candle remains near the Font and is lit for Baptisms.
Processions take place in the church from time to time, especially on major feast days. A procession is an act of worship because it gives us an opportunity to raise our voices in song, to pray as we stop along the way, and to remember that God calls all his people to be pilgrims: people who have someplace to go and something to do.
Vestments are worn by many of the people - both clergy and lay - who have particular roles in the liturgy of the day. We wear vestments in order to adorn ourselves as we seek to draw closer to the presence of God, and because every celebration of the Mass is a feast and worthy of the time and effort it takes to get dressed up. We put on our best for God.