Fourth in a Series treating the Symbolism of the Traditional Form of Holy Mass
Fr. François Xavier Schouppe, S.J.
The celebration of the Holy Sacrifice viewed in its entirety, i.e., the order of the Mass or the series of the ceremonies taken conjointly, may be explained under a triple heading:
- According to their fullest allegorical meaning.
- According to the allegorical meaning conjoined to the Lord's Passion as it is wont to be proposed to the piety of the faithful.
- According to the literal sense with which the moral sense is often identified or intimately connected.
[Note: Due to reasons of size, the original essay has been divided into two thematic parts, with the first, appearing below, treating the allegorical interpretation, and the second, to appear next week, treating the literal and moral interpretation of Holy Mass.]
|The Faithful Catholic Experience of Holy Mass|
The Full Allegorical Meaning of Holy Mass
Speaking in the full allegorical sense, the Mass may be divided into three parts. The first part, which is from the beginning to the offertory, represents the history of the world, from the creation down to the beginning of the Passion of Christ. The second part, which is from the offertory to the Communion inclusively, represents the spectacle of the Passion. The third part, which is from the Antiphon of the Communion to the last Gospel, symbolizes the history of Christ and of the world, even its future, to the end of time.
The priest, entering the sanctuary and approaching the altar, represents the creation of the first man and woman coming from the hand of God, and also the grandeur of their primeval state. When the priest comes down to the foot of the altar and makes the confession of sin, we are reminded of the fall of Adam and human race and, at the same time, the promise of pardon given through the hope of the future Redeemer. The Introit and Kyrie call to mind the language of the Patriarchs and prophets announcing the coming of the Messias and supplicating Him sighs. The Gloria or Angelical Hymn indicates the advent of Christ, the promised Messias, and the joy which He brought into the world by His birth. The Collects remind us of the private life, the labors and the prayers of Christ. The Epistle, Gospel and Credo remind us of the public life of Christ and His doctrine, which He taught us by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles as, also, by His own divine lips, and by the voice of the Church, which He instituted.
The Offertory or the Antiphon of the Offertory is the preamble of the commencement of Christ's passion, which He began by His agony and prayer in the garden of Olives. When the chalice is uncovered and the oblation of the Host and chalice is made, which action is the beginning of the sacrifice, we recall to mind how the Saviour of the world fell into the sacrilegious hands of His enemies, and the numerous and varied tortures to which they subjected Him at the very beginning of His immolation and death. The priest washes his fingers, and thereby represents Pilate who washed his hands in the presence of the people. When the orate fratres - pray brethren is said by the priest, we recall the words of Pilate, who said: Ecce homo - behold the man. The Preface and Sanctus indicate, on the one hand, the wonderful sayings of Christ, and also His silence, as well as His innocence, which were proclaimed by Pilate; on the other hand, they recall the cries of the Jews: Hosanna et crucifige - Praise ye the Lord, crucify Him.
The Canon is recited in silence. It calls to mind Christ carrying the cross and His crucifixion, an event which astonished even nature itself. The elevation reminds us of Christ raised on the cross. Silence now prevails as far as Nobis quoque peccatoribus and Pater noster, when we recall to mind Christ hanging on the Cross where He prays in silence, and afterwards pronounced His seven words.
At the breaking of the Host, a particle of the Host is dropped into the chalice to represent the death of Christ, and the descent of His blessed spirit into hell. The Agnus Dei accompanied with the striking of the breast represents the conversion of those who were present at the death of the Saviour. The Communion and ablutions denote the burial of the Lord.
The Communion Antiphon having been read, the priest turns towards the people and salutes them. This is done to remind us of Christ risen from the dead and appearing to His Apostles when He imparted to them His holy peace. At the Post-Communion and the closing of the book, we are reminded of Christ, who conversed with His Apostles during the space of forty days, and afterwards ascended into heaven. The blessing, which the priest gives to the faithful, reminds us of the descent of the Holy Ghost upon the Apostles. The last gospel and genuflection represent the preaching of the word of God in the world and to all men, all of whom however do not receive Christ. "But as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God." In the final dissolution of the world, all shall see His glory, and "in the name of Jesus every knee shall bend in heaven, on earth, and in hell."
In this great allegory, it is worthy of note that the mystery of the consecration and the elevation is prominently placed in the middle of the Mass and to these, all that precedes and follows are referred. This beautifully represents how Christ crucified is placed in the middle of the ages - to whom all things are referred, upon whom all things depend, and in whom all things are contained. The ancient world is referred to Christ, since it was expecting and preparing for Him; the new world is referred to Him also, since it has been crucifying or receiving Him, opposing or honoring Him throughout all time and will continue to do so even to the final separation of the just and the unjust.
The Restricted Allegorical Meaning
Speaking in the restricted allegorical sense, or inasmuch as it simply represents the Passion of the Lord, the divine drama of the Mass may be divided into various acts or scenes in which are exhibited to the piety of the faithful the various mysteries of the sufferings of Christ from the garden of Olives down to the burial, as well as the resurrection and the other glorious mysteries which follow. These scenes are the following:
The departure of the priest in company with his attendants from the sacristy represents Christ going out with His disciples from the chamber of the Last Supper to Mount Olivet.
The Confiteor reminds us of the prayer and agony of Christ in the garden. When the priest ascends the altar and kisses it, we are reminded of Christ in the presence of His enemies and betrayal with a kiss. The Introit reminds us of our Lord in the house of Annas, where He received a blow on the cheek. When the Kyrie eleison and Gloria are recited, the priest stands in the middle of the altar, and we are thereby reminded of Jesus, who stood before Caiphas and, also, the threefold denial by Peter. When the priest kisses the altar and turns towards the people, whom he salutes with the words Dominus vobiscum - the Lord be with you, we are reminded of the look which our Lord gave to Peter. When the priest recites the Epistle, we are reminded of the courtroom of Pilate.
The transfer of the book and the recitation of the Munda cor recall Christ who was sent to Herod and who was mocked by him. The Gospel and Credo recall Christ standing before the various tribunals where He confessed Himself to be the Son of God and declared that His kingdom was not of this world.
The unveiling of the chalice recalls Christ, when He was stripped of His garments and was scourged.
The chalice, after the oblation, is covered with the pall. This act represents Christ crowned with thorns.
The washing of the hands reminds us of Pilate, who washed his hands; the Jews thereupon exclaiming: "Let His blood be upon us."
The Orate fratres recalls Christ shown to the people by Pilate, who said Ecce Homo - Behold the man. When the Preface, Sanctus, and Hosanna are recited, we are reminded of Pilate proclaiming the innocence of Christ to the Jews who, only a few days before, hailed Him with Hosannas, but now clamor for His death.
When the priest makes a profound bow, and the sign of the cross on the oblatory offerings, we recall Christ's condemnation to death, and the taking the cross upon His shoulders.
When the priest prays in silence and recites the Memento, etc., we are reminded of our Lord carrying the cross up Calvary's mount.
When the priest extends his hands over the oblations, we are reminded of Christ stretched out on the nailed to the cross.
The elevation of the Sacred Host and chalice tell of Christ raised upon the cross, and pouring out His blood from open wounds.
When the priest prays in silence, and afterwards makes a number of signs of the cross, we are exhorted to think of Christ praying on the cross and suffering without a murmur.
At the Nobis quoque peccatoribus, we are reminded of the conversion of the penitent thief.
The Pater noster, with its seven petitions, recalls the seven last words spoken by Christ on the cross.
The separating the Host and dropping the particle in the chalice recalls the death of Christ and the descent of His blessed spirit into hell.
The Agnus Dei recalls the conversion of the multitudes, who witnessed the prodigies accompanying the death of Christ.
The unveiling of the chalice and the communion represent the taking down of the body of Christ from the cross and its burial.
The Antiphon of communion represents the resurrection of the Lord.
When the priest turns toward the people and salutes them, we recall the risen Lord appearing to and wishing the disciples His holy peace.
The post-communion prayers and closing the book tell of Christ teaching His disciples during the space of forty days and then ascending up into heaven.
At the last Gospel we are reminded of Christ crowned with glory in heaven and there ruling the Church, which is to teach all nations until the end of time.
[Note: Fellow Catholic Michael Sestak has put together a wonderful video presentation of the allegorical meaning of Holy Mass, which The Radical Catholic heartily endorses. Enjoy!]