One way of talking about the Liturgy, and our life in the Church, is to use sacramental language. What does that mean? To talk in sacramental language is to talk in terms of how something (a sign, a gesture, words) reveals to us the hidden realities of heaven.
The Catechism (CCC 1145) often refers to the Liturgy in terms of sacramental language. “A sacramental celebration is woven from signs and symbols.” What are signs and symbols? In our daily life, signs point us to something. Think of a stop sign: a red octagon means “Stop!” The golden arches show you where you can get a cheeseburger. Those are signs, they point the way to something else. But the golden arches do not contain within themselves anything more than showing you where to find a McD’s. In Catholic language, symbols are signs that not only point to something (as in, merely a sign, or “just a sign”), but symbols also contain the very thing they symbolize.
Confusing? Think of the American flag (or the Canadian flag for me and my home country). It is a sign of your country and of patriotism, but it also instills in you a sense of patriotism and pride when you see it. In that sense, it also shines forth what it symbolizes, and it contains deeper meaning. It is not “merely a sign”, it is a symbol of more because it makes something more present.
In the Liturgy, the “signs and symbols” we use are not merely to be taken at face value. Every part of the Mass contains deeper meaning, and becomes a symbol of heavenly realities: not only does it point us towards heaven, it also contains within it and reveals the very realities of heaven. Think of an image of a crucifix, for example. It does not say to us “Jesus died on the cross, end of story.” It brings to mind the entire Paschal Mystery (Jesus’ death and Resurrection for the salvation of the world.) This heavenly reality moves us, and as believers in faith, it can effect a change within us the more we contemplate it.
Do you have a beautiful crucifix in your Church? We should all have a crucifix in our homes as well. Spend some time this week contemplating and adoring the image of the Lord on the Cross.