Signs and Symbols in the Mass

Remembering the dress your wife wore on your first date or your husband’s favorite meal are small things that truly touch the heart when they are remembered.

It is in the little things &#0151 things that may seem unimportant &#0151 that we show our unity and find the richest symbolism. It is in the little things of the Mass that we see our unity as Catholics and the richest symbols of the liturgy.

When non-Catholic Christians choose to join the Catholic Church, one factor that they often say attracted them to Catholicism is the beauty of our liturgies, the ritual beauty of our Mass. Yet, many of these converts also wonder why our liturgies are so structured. I find that many Catholics often wonder this, also, and I think that we are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with it because, as a society, we are moving away from formalities. Our society is becoming more informal, as some people like to call it (I prefer the term sloppy, myself, but that is just my opinion).

The loss of formality in society causes us to lose our understanding of the importance of formality in human experience. Formalities are a very natural and necessary part of our lives. When children have a tea party, the first thing they do is to create rules: “You sit there, and I sit here, and first we drink this and then we eat that.” Those are formalities. We should not have any athletic event without rules to structure the play and penalties for breaking those rules. Those are formalities. If cars did not all stop on red and go on green, then we whould have total chaos on the streets. Those are formalities. They are a natural and necessary part of human endeavors. Hence, it is perfectly natural that formalities would abound in the worship of our God, which is the most profound human endeavor.

The Mass is, in fact, a ritualized prayer. A ritual, by its very definition, is something structured, something formal. When we come to Mass, we enter into the ritual, we conform ourselves to it. We do not conform it to us, because the Mass is eternal. It is our foretaste of Heaven. So, we conform our lives to this heavenly liturgy.

At the Last Supper, the first Mass, Christ transformed the Passover meal into a symbol of the sacrifice that He would make the next day for the redemption of mankind. We see the sacrificial nature of the Mass in the separation of the body and the blood. When something is sacrificed, it is killed. It is cut open and the blood pours out, so the body and blood are separated. The ritualized, formal way that we symbolize that at the Mass is by consecrating the bread and wine separately; and the two do not meet again until the commixtio, the commingling rite.

Some of you may miss the commingling rite because it happens during the Agnus Dei. It is when the priest breaks off a very small particle of the host and puts it into the chalice. This is a very rich symbol in the Mass, filled with tradition. By breaking off such a small particle, we are acknowledging that every particle, every crumb is fully the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, which is why we treat every particle with such care. The commingling rite also comes from a very ancient Roman tradition whereby a piece of the host that was consecrated by the Pope was brought to the neighboring parishes. That piece of host was put into the chalice of the Mass that was being offered in that parish to show the unity between the Mass in that parish and the Mass that the Holy Father was offering. At the same time, there was another tradition developing whereby the priest would take a host from the tabernacle that had been consecrated at a previous Mass and puts a piece of that host into the chalice showing the unity between yesterday’s Mass and today’s Mass. Hence, when we unite the body and blood of Christ we see the unity of the Mass in space &#0151 that all the Masses going on throughout the world are the same Mass &#0151 and we see the unity of the Mass in time &#0151 that all the Masses that have been offered, that are being offered, and that will be offered are the same. We see a unity of the priesthood, that all the priests offering the Holy Mass throughout the world and throughout time are united in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. All of that is symbolized in the dropping of the piece of host into the chalice.

Consider also the objects that we use at Mass. We begin with the altar, which represents the body of Christ. The white cloth that covers the altar is Christ’s burial garment. When the priest kisses the altar, he is kissing Christ faithfully in contradiction to the kiss of Judas. The altar is a very strong symbol of the meal aspect of the Mass, because the Mass is a sacrificial meal as the Last Supper was. But the altar also looks like a tomb because it holds the relic of a saint. The ancient Christians celebrated Mass over the tombs of the Saints and martyrs to unite themselves with them, to ask for their intercessions, that they too would be just as faithful as the Saints and martyrs had been. That tradition continues today by putting small relics of Saints into our altars.

The candles that we use at Mass represent Christ, Who is the light of the world. So, we have candles on the altar where the bread and wine become His body and blood, soul and divinity. We have a candle by the tabernacle where Christ is reposed. And the only other place where we have candles is at the ambo during the reading of the Gospel. The candles remind us that these are the words of Christ and not just words about Christ. The only two days of the year when we do not have candles at the ambo for the reading of the Gospel are Good Friday and Palm Sunday, and that is because on those two days we read about the passion and death of Christ.

The ambo is a place reserved for the reading of the Sacred Scriptures. It is only from the ambo or from the chair that the priest is normally allowed to preach his homily. For certain pastoral situations, such as with small children, he is allowed to walk out into the congregation and speak to them. However, the normal place for the homily is at the ambo or the chair. He preaches from the ambo because this is where the word of God has just been proclaimed and the homily is an exposition of the word of God. It is intended to be an extension of the word of God, because the priest preaching is standing in the person of Christ.

The reason why the chair is the other appropriate place from which to preach is that the chair is a symbol of authority. That is why kings have thrones. The Latin word for chair is cathedra. The cathedral is called such because it houses the bishop’s cathedra, his chair, his symbol of authority. When a priest is preaching, he is exercising his authority as one ordained to carry out the three-fold work of the Church: to teach, to govern, and to sanctify.

And though not the last in the rich symbolism present in our liturgy, the last for this discussion are the vestments of the priest. A sure sign that one is at a very formal, ritualized prayer is when one sees a man processing in preceeded by a cross and candles and wearing clothes that one would never see him wearing in the streets. That tells us that something out of the ordinary, something extraordinary, is going to happen here. In fact, the liturgical vestments that the priest wears derive from clothing that was commonly worn, so, they began by having a practical purpose and then came to have symbolic meaning.

As a priest vests for Mass, he is praying certain prayers that remind him of the significance of each vestment.

The priest begins by putting on an amice. It goes around his neck and is called his helmet of salvation. It helps him to fight off the temptations of Satan as he is offering the Mass.

Next, the priest puts on an alb, which derives from the Latin word for “white.” This is why the alb is always white. It is a symbol of the priest’s purity, so it covers his whole body.

Then the priest puts on a cincture, which is a cord that goes around his waist. This is the priest’s chastity belt, as I like to call it. It is a sign of his chastity.

You will sometimes see a priest wear a maniple. It hangs from his left arm and is now optional, so it is not often seen anymore. However, the maniple derived from a cloth that the priest would have used to wipe sweat from his brow; so, it symbolized the labor and hard work that the priest did in his ministry. Also, since the priest is to imitate the sacrifice of Christ, it was used to wipe the symbolic blood that was a product of that sacrifice.

Then the priest puts on a stole. The stole is a symbol of the priest’s authority. It represents the yoke of Christ that the priest carries around his shoulders. A priest always wears a stole when he is exercising his priestly ministry, which is why you see the priests wearing stoles as they come out to distribute Holy Communion, when they baptize, and when they’re hearing confessions.

And, finally, the priest puts on a chasuble. The chasuble covers everything else, because the chasuble is a symbol of the priest’s charity, which must cover everything else that he does. While his authority exists and is present, it is always cloaked with charity.

All of these signs and symbols remind us that ours is an incarnational religion. The Word became flesh so that we might experience God with all of our senses. As human beings, creatures that are a soul/body composite, the things of the body matter to us. Physical realities are important to our understanding, not just of the natural order, but also of the supernatural order. Our Creator obviously understood that because He made us. So, the invisible God became visible through Jesus Christ. And He continues to help us experience Him, understand Him, see Him, touch Him, taste Him, smell Him, through the eternal Mass that we participate in here on earth.

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