Reading the Signs of Christianity

It is a truism that Christianity is a world of signs. In Roman Catholic Christianity, it is believed to be founded upon seven classical signs in its sacramental theology. The very definition of sacrament is semiotic in structure and orientation, as even the most elementary statement drawn from The Penny Catechism shows:

Q. What is a Sacrament?

A. A Sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace, ordained by Jesus Christ, by which grace is given to our souls.230

Other, more sophisticated, statements of the same theme support this basic definition:

Q. What is a sacrament?

A. A sacrament is a sacred sign by which we worship God, his love is revealed to us and his saving work accomplished in us. In the sacraments God shows us what he does and does what he shows us.231

• The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.232

Reminding us that the Latin sacramentum renders the Greek mustSrion, Ludwig Ott sets out a variety of meanings of 'sacrament' which include secret (mysterium), 'sign, symbol, type of a sacred mystery'.233 He reminds us, too, of Augustine's definition in De Civitate Dei, x, 5: 'Sacramentum, id est sacrum signum'.234 Ott continues:

The Sacraments are neither purely natural signs, as a natural action can designate a supernatural effect only on the ground of the positive ordinance of God, nor purely artificial or conventional signs, as according to their inner composition, they are appropriate for vividly depicting inward grace. They are not merely speculative or theoretical signs, but efficacious or practical signs as they not only indicate the inner sanctification, but also effect it.235

In a few words, a sacrament effects what it signifies.236 Furthermore, they function or act ex opere operato (i.e. by the very fact that they are undertaken) regardless of the virtue of either recipient or celebrant.237

It is noteworthy in Islam how the Qur'an stresses the presence of God's signs in the World: Sa nurihim ayatina fi 'l-afaq wa fi anfusihim ^.41:53: 'We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves'). A modern Christian catechism's disquisition on the sacramental economy similarly notes that human beings cherish signs and symbols which may facilitate the expression and perception of 'spiritual realities'. And just as each person uses signs and symbols for his or her communication with a fellow human being, so these are useful for communication with God, especially with regard to the human signs and symbols embedded in the liturgical worship of God. Sacramental signs confirm the antique signs of the Old Covenant as well as the later Christological signs articulated as part of the New.238

Hans Urs Von Balthasar stresses that the form of Jesus can only be understood within the historical contexts of time and space. He cannot, and should not, be divorced from either.239 He brought 'manifest signs (semeia) of his divine power' as well as powerful verbal clues240 which were all signalled or articulated for the Christian within a particular historical framework.

Robert Corrington reminds us that 'signs do not exist in a vacuum . signs always have one or more contexts within which they obtain'.241 Christ's signs for the Christian begin in a historic present - or, better, are perceived in a historic present - and stretch to infinity. They are articulated in Palestine and are relevant to a universe.

Of course, the Christian sacraments, whether counted as two or seven,242 do not constitute the entire semiotic economy of Christianity, but they are a most powerful part of it.243 How does all this link to a broader semiotic picture? The sacrament of the Eucharist, accepted as sacrament by both the Catholic and Protestant Churches (though interpreted differently), is the key.

Earlier, we examined the Christian Church in terms of koinonia. What we can stress here now is that it is, above all, in the majority and diversity of its branches, a Eucharistic koinonia.244 There is thus an umbilical link between the Church as objective phenomenon and as a body of signs. And if, phenomenologically and semio-tically, the Christian Church is articulated in terms of community, then the question of who exercises legitimate authority over that community becomes paramount - as we saw in our discussions of Arius and Augustine. This point is underlined by a modern Catechism:

Since he has the ministry of Peter in the Church, the Pope is associated with every celebration of the Eucharist, wherein he is named as the sign and servant of the unity of the universal Church.245

The Eucharist today is held up by the Catholic Church as a symbol of unity to be aspired towards by others; it may only be received by its own faithful (except in certain specified cases of grave need), and it is denied to others on principle.246 Thus the modern phenomenon that is divided Christianity embraces an aspirational unity whose semiotic indicators include Eucharist, koinonia and, sometimes, a desire for a greater shared authority. Yet the separate, and separated, celebrations of the Eucharist are nonetheless regarded as witnesses and signs by both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism:

The Sacramental nature of the Church as sign, instrument, and foretaste of communion is especially manifest in the common celebration of the eucharist. Here, celebrating the memorial of the Lord and partaking of His body and blood, the Church points to the origin of its communion in Christ, himself in communion with the Father; it experiences that communion in a visible fellowship; it anticipates the fullness of the communion in the Kingdom; it is sent out to realise, manifest and extend that communion in the world.247

It will not go unnoticed that some of the issues which divide the Sunnl-Shl'ite Muslim world are those of authority, leadership (khilafa) and mutual acceptance of each other's umma.

A sacrament, then, 'is both sign and instrument'. And 'the [Christian] Church as koinonia requires visible expression , because it is intended to be the "sacrament" of God's saving work'.248 We have demonstrated the semiotic thread which links sacrament, authority and koinonia. How does this marry with modern semiotic theory?

We surveyed earlier some modern definitions of semiotics and semiology and identified a plethora ranging from 'the study of patterned human behaviour in communication in all its modes' 'the study of sign and symbol systems' and 'the analysis of signs or the study of the functioning of sign systems'249 to Umberto Eco's desire 'to explain every case of sign-function in terms of underlying systems of elements mutually correlated by one or more codes'. For him, a general theory of semiotics meant 'a theory of codes' and 'a theory of sign production'.250

If we take, then, Christianity, with the Church as its formal edifice or articulation, or, to use Eco's phrase, 'universe of signification',251 deliberately constructed as such by Jesus Christ on the foundations of the sacraments,252 then we find ourselves studying an interlocking universe of signs whose constituent parts include, as we have noted, the concepts of authority, koinonia and mysterium/sacramentum which point 'heavenwards' to the Divine and 'earthwards' to the human. Sacramentum becomes a mediate link as well as a primary, efficacious signum. And as Augustine reminded us earlier, sacramentum is not just signum but sacrum signum.253

Hence it is to the arena of the sacred that we will now turn, remaining aware at the same time of the applicability of the words of the protagonist of Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, Brother William of Baskerville, to the New Testament itself: 'A book is made up of signs that speak of other signs, which in their turn speak of things'.254

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