Dr. Gerry Turcotte


May 4, 2015

"Better is a dry morsel, with quietness, than a house full of feasting with strife."

Proverbs 17.1

It's hard to imagine getting through our daily lives without symbols. Few in the western world would fail to recognize a bright red octagon and not know it meant "Stop!"

It's perhaps why there are so many funny additions to the sign. My favourites include the prankster who wrote "in the name of love" on one, or the person in a country town who crossed out "stop" and wrote "Whoa!"

Not all symbols are as universally understood, however, and many have lost or changed their meaning over time.

I recently searched for symbols for Easter and no one will be surprised that a whole slew of secular suggestions appeared: a bunny, decorated eggs, candy and parades. Far, far down the list was a lonely cross.

This will not be another rant about the secularization of Easter. I promise! Instead, it prompted me to investigate the origins of a whole range of other symbols that we have forgotten or misunderstood.

For example, a friend of mine recently brought the story of the ladybug to my attention and I was surprised to learn the ladybug was commonly associated with Our Lady.

The legend apparently dates back to the Middle Ages when farmers prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary for help against a deadly infestation of their fields. To their relief a swarm of ladybugs descended on the predators and saved the crops.

From that time on the insects became known as "the beetles of Our Lady." In German, they were referred to as Marienkäfer, or Marybeetle.

The black spots were said to symbolize Mary's seven joys and seven sorrows, while the red referenced her cloak, so often seen in depictions of Our Lady, and itself a symbol of Christ's blood.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a symbol as something that stands for something else, especially "a material object representing . . . something immaterial."

The Apostles' Creed first appears in writing as early as 390, and was referred to as the Symbolum Apostolorum, or Symbol of the Apostles, because each was thought to have contributed one article of the creed.

The Mirror of Our Lady (1530) invokes the Apostles' Creed as the "mark of a Christian" and goes on to describe, in highly symbolic language, the "gatherynge of morselles, for eche of the .xii. apostels put therto a morsel."

What lovely phrasing, describing how each of the 12 apostles took into themselves a morsel of the Eucharist.

In my reading of this, the fullness of the Eucharistic meal is captured even in a single crumb; but is it not also possible to understand each of us to be morsels at the table of the Lord?

(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University in Calgary.)