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The God Squad: The difference between signs and symbols

Q: Your recent answer about displaying religious holiday decorations was a little confusing. You said it’s all right to display a Christmas tree, but not a manger? Easter bunnies, but not a cross? If you’re in favor of every faith having equal billing and everyone being able to share their beliefs, they why not the most precious religious symbols of those holidays?

I work in a large university setting, and our campus proudly displays a menorah and a manger scene. Christmas trees are nice, but they aren’t true reminders of what the holiday stands for. I’m not offended by other cultures and religions, and I think we owe it to one another to be tolerant and understand others’ points of view. Just because Christians display a manger doesn’t obligate anyone to accept what we believe. — D., Centereach, N.Y., via

A: The important issue raised by your question and only briefly touched upon in my previous column is how we present our faith in both interfaith and secular settings.

In our life together as the God Squad, Father Tom Hartman and I faced this issue for almost 30 years. I can sum up what we learned in five words: offer but do not impose. If displays are intended as holiday greetings to brighten dreary public spaces, that’s fine. However, those designed to coerce or convert — despite the loving faith behind them — divide rather than unite us.


Christmas and Hanukah displays don’t compel people to observe either Christmas or Hanukah. They’re just wordless public decorations that mark our winter holidays. I don’t object to such displays on public property because they don’t establish a national religion.

As I’ve noted previously, feigning rage over Christmas trees trivializes how we should address proper objects of outrage. The fact that many holiday displays don’t point to the deep theological beliefs of Christians is quite true — and exactly why they’re so appropriate for public presentation. It’s clear that they are Christmas decorations, but they’re not so Christian that they introduce a new level of theological assertiveness that legitimately makes non-Christians uncomfortable.

Consider the difference between a sign and a symbol. A symbol points beyond itself, while a sign does not. A Christmas tree is a sign of Christmas. It’s just a tree. The menorah is just a sign of Hanukah. It’s a candle holder. A cross, however, is a symbol of the risen Christ and is probably the most powerful symbol in all religious life.

The cross points beyond itself to the crucifixion (if there is a body on the cross and it’s called a crucifix) or the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ (if the cross is empty). The crucifixion and resurrection are the foundational beliefs of Christianity, and that’s why they’re problematic to those who don’t share those beliefs. The menorah does not symbolize any foundational Jewish belief, while the cross does.


I’ve often prayed with Christian clergy and I’m always grateful when they pray in the name of Jesus, which was his name. However, when I’m asked to say “amen” to a prayer offered in the name of Christ, I am just cut out. Christ is a title, not a name. It means “messiah,” and that is a theological belief about the person Jesus that Christians can make, but I cannot. If we’re to pray together, we must respect some boundaries so we can all say “amen” together.

We see this difference between sign and symbol in another context — the blessing over bread. The Jewish blessing over bread is just a blessing over ordinary bread, and as such, all who are grateful to God for “bringing forth bread from the earth” could say it. However, the Christian blessing over the bread of the Eucharist is a blessing over symbolic bread. That bread represents the body of Christ, and consuming it is an act of supreme Christian faith.

All of this is why I’m in favor of publicly sharing our signs but not publicly sharing our symbols. I hope this helps.

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