Catholic World – The Symbolism of the Church

bronze processional cross at the Church of the Transfiguration at the Community of Jesus, Orleans, Massachusetts, artist unknown; photographed on 27 August 2015 by Karemin1094; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe Catholic Church has no forms – that is, meaningless ceremonies used to impress and awe the multitude; but she has symbols – that is, “signs by which things are distinguished one from another.” According to the original meaning of the word, these symbols, the aggregate of which has come to be an outward and universal profession of faith, have each one a deep significance, sometimes even a double sense, and are, in fact, a silent compendium of the history as well as the doctrines of Catholic Christianity. But it cannot be too much insisted upon that their worth is entirely relative, depending solely on their authorized interpretation, and losing all their value if disconnected from it. Thus we can recognize no symbols, but mere forms, in the ritual of Anglicanism, Lutheranism, etc. Not only is their value relative, but their use is almost optional in the church – we mean as regards the use made of them by the individual soul. The church has “many mansions,” and sympathizes with the severe taste of the Northern races, as well as with the superabundant love of the gorgeous in observance, of the Southern and Eastern nations. Sprung from an Eastern people, her ritual is as manifold and dignified as that of her Hebrew precursor; but, deputed as she is to the universal world, and having built her later development upon the broad basis of the Gothic and Scandinavian natures, her exterior admits of the austere simplicity so dear to the last-mentioned races.

Still the principle of outward forms being a fitting expression of inward belief is so obvious and so wedded to the requirements of human nature, that it would need a second deluge to destroy it. When “forms” (so-called) were dethroned by the Reformation, they crept in again in real earnest among the reformers themselves. The phraseology of Cromwell and his Roundheads, the speech and garments of the Quakers, the splits among the Baptists and Anabaptists upon the “form” of administering what they did not even believe to be a sacrament, were so many involuntary acts of homage to the time-honored principle of symbolism. Of the good effect produced on all sorts of minds by the outward expression of the doctrine of Christ, we will quote two examples, taken from very opposite sources. In a note to the preface of Moehler’s Symbolik, we read: “There is at Bingen, on the Rhine, a beautiful little Catholic church dedicated to Saint Roch, to which Goethe once gave an altarpiece. ‘Whenever I enter this church,’ he used to say, ‘I always wish I were a Catholic priest.’ In the great poet’s autobiography we also find an interesting description of the extraordinary love for the Catholic ritual and liturgy that had captivated his heart in boyhood.”

The other example is from the writer’s own experience among the agricultural poor of England. A poor and infirm woman, having come for the first time to a Catholic chapel, said afterwards that, often as she had read in the Bible the history of Our Lord’s Passion, she had never understood it so well as she did by once looking at the crucifix over the altar. This was the beginning of her conversion.

Of the great religious revival in Germany and the labors of Count Stolberg (the period which answers in time, as also in result, to the Tractarian or Oxford movement in England) the preface to Moehler’s Symbolik also says: “As the avenues that led to the Egyptian temples were bordered on either side by representations of the mystical sphinx, so it was through a mystical art, poetry and philosophy, that many minds were then conducted to the sanctuary of the true church.” Mrs. Jameson bears witness to a similar process within her own consciousness concerning the saints of the monastic orders. “We have in the monastic pictures a series of biographies of the most instructive kind…. After having studied the written lives of Saint Benedict, Saint Bernard, Saint Francis, Saint Clare, and Saint Dominic, to enable me to understand the pictures which relate to them, I found it was the pictures which enabled me better to understand their lives and character.” The same thought is expressed by a learned English antiquarian, speaking of the symbolical paintings of the Catacombs: “Moreover, because they [the artists] desire that the mind of those who see these paintings should not retain the outward semblance of the scene, but be carried forward to its hidden and mystical meaning, they always depart more or less from its literal truth, e.g., we never find seven or twelve baskets (the miracle of the multiplication of loaves), but eight; nor six water-pots of stone (marriage of Cana), but seven. It was the symbol of a religious idea they aimed at, not the representation of a real history.” In a word, symbolism is as old as creation, and there never was a time when men did not make for themselves a language of signs. Heathendom was only a corruption of signs into realities; Judaism was a religion of signs carefully interpreted in view of the later and fuller revelation. Our faith is the realization, in part, of the Hebrew types; but since we are still clogged with mortality, and therefore still under an imperfect law, it follows that through symbols we must still be taught. An unsymbolical religion would be unscriptural, for Christ himself tells us he has come to “fulfil, not to destroy the law.” And this is not incompatible with the command to “worship God in spirit and in truth”; for without the spirit, of what use would be the form? It would be as valueless as words from the lips of a maniac, words which have no weight because the mind does not direct them. But who would contend that because the random words of a madman are meaningless, all speech is so? Even so, though mere forms would be idolatrous, forms hallowed by doctrinal and scriptural meaning are holy and venerable.

Having premised thus much, we will attempt some description of a few of those symbols most anciently used by the church, and of the significance of certain acts and ceremonies which usually are but superficially examined by our opponents, and, perhaps, not fully appreciated by Catholics themselves.

The Catacombs, where the ecclesiastical life of the church was first brought into shape, furnish the most interesting material on the subject of Christian symbolism. The times required great caution – here was one motive for secret and hieroglyphic instruction; the first converts were Jews, Orientals deeply imbued with the love of imagery and poetry – here was a second reason for the rapid development of symbolism; our Lord himself had deigned to use figures and parables in his teaching – here was also a model and a permission for the copious use of signs. Almost the earliest, and certainly the most interesting, Christian symbol was the fish. The Greek word for fish contained five letters, ?????, each of which was the initial of the following words: Jesus, Christ, Son (of) God, Saviour. Dr. Northcote says of it: “It became a profession of faith, as it were, both of the two natures, the unity of person and the redemptorial office of our Lord.” Besides this ingenious meaning, the fish signified “the human soul in the first or natural creation, the same soul as regenerate or created anew, and Christ himself as uniting the two creations of nature and grace. In the first or natural creation, life began in the waters and from the waters, of which the fish is the inhabitant. In the spiritual or new creation, all life begins from the waters of baptism.” The fish also bears a reference to the story of Tobias, where the application of its entrails “defeats devils and restores sight.” In three or four instances the fish is depicted bearing a ship on its back, and this combination naturally suggests to us Christ upholding his church. The epitaph of Saint Abercius, Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia at the end of the second century, has the following allusion to the symbolic fish: “Faith led me on the road, and set before me for food from the one fountain the great and spotless fish which the pure Virgin embraced; and this fish she (Faith) gave to friends to eat everywhere, having good wine, giving wine mixed with water, and bread. May he who understands these things pray for me.” In a fresco in the crypt of Santa Lucina is seen a fish carrying on its back a basket of bread, the latter being of an ashen color, like that offered by the Jews to their priests on festival days, and in the midst of the bread appears something red, partly effaced, but resembling a cup of red wine. This, of course, was intended for the Holy Eucharist, as we shall see further on. In the work of Aringhi on the Catacombs, we find it mentioned that a sarcophagus was found of the date of the very earliest centuries, whereon the story of the paralytic is represented (a very favorite simile in the Catacomb list of subjects). The bed of the subject of the cure is shaped like a fish. The baptismal font first received the name of “piscina,” and the Christians often called each other “pisciculi,” little fishes, as we learn from Perret. He also tells us too that this emblem reminded the early Christians of the very scenes of the Gospel connected with Christ’s miracles, the apostles’ calling, and the establishment of the church; Christ walking on the waters; preaching from a bark; allaying the tempest; causing a miraculous draught of fishes to be taken; finding the coin of the tribute in the mouth of a fish – all this was suggested by the simple figure of a fish. Saint Jerome says that “the fish that was taken in whose mouth was the coin of the tribute was Christ, the second Adam, at the cost of whose blood the first Adam and Peter, that is, all sinners, were redeemed.” Origen speaks of our Lord as “he who is figuratively called the fish.” This symbol leads naturally to that obvious one of the loaves, which typifies the Holy Eucharist. Abundant proof of this is found in the writings of the fathers. The types of this sacrifice and sacrament are unmistakable. In the cemetery of Saint Callixtus is a painting representing the mystical supper (not the historical one) of the Eucharist. “The seven disciples seated at the table represent all the disciples of Christ. The number seven signifies universality. The two fishes on the table remind us of the multiplication of the five loaves and two fishes. The seven baskets are filled with whole loaves, not fragments, and the addition of an eighth hints that we are not to think of the literal history, … but of that ulterior and spiritual sense to which they all (the three occurrences represented in this one fresco) point, and in which they all unite, that is, the doctrine of the Blessed Eucharist.” A lamb carrying a milk-pail on its back is sometimes used as an eucharistic emblem. The Acts of Saint Perpetua give us her dream, or rather vision, in which the Good Shepherd gave her the curds to drink, after he had milked his flocks. She received it with her arms crossed on her breast, while all the assistants said “Amen”! These words and posture were those used during the administration of the Blessed Sacrament. Milk is perpetually used in Scripture to denote the good things of God; and in early times, according to Tertullian and Saint Jerome, milk and honey were given with this meaning to newly baptized infants or adults. The practice was continued, on Holy Saturday at least, as late as the ninth and tenth centuries. This symbol of the milk-pail is, however, rarer than any other, and is by no means on the same level as that of the fish, the lamb, and the loaves.

The Good Shepherd is a pictorial symbol that has never fallen into disuse, and that of Orpheus with his lute or pipe is analogous to it. The adaptation of the heathen myth of Orpheus training wild beasts by the sweet sounds of his lyre to the hidden meaning of Christ curbing men’s passions by his doctrine, is vouched for by Saint Clement of Alexandria. In a painting of the Good Shepherd in the cemetery of Saint Saturninus, a goat appears in place of the lost sheep. “This,” says Dr. Northcote, “was intended as a protest against the hateful severity of the Novatians and other heretics who refused reconciliation to penitent sinners.” In some of these representations, we see several sheep at the feet of Jesus, in attitudes pregnant with meaning; some “listening attentively, not quite understanding as yet, but meditating and seeking to understand; others turning their tails – it is an unwelcome subject, and they will have nothing to do with it”; or, again, “one of the two sheep is drinking in all that he hears with simplicity and affection; the other is eating grass – he has something else to do; he is occupied with the cares, pleasures, and riches of this world.”

Dr. Northcote says that as the sheep represent the flock of Christ in life, so the dove is more especially the symbol of the soul after death. It is primarily a type of the Holy Ghost, as the Scriptures suggest and the writings of the fathers assert. They call the Holy Spirit figuratively “a dove without gall,” the expression which is found repeated on some of the sepulchres of children, as indicative of their innocence. Later on, we find the soul of Saint Scholastica appearing to her brother, Saint Benedict, under this form. A dove pecking at grapes denotes the soul’s enjoyment of the fruits of eternal happiness. Tertullian calls the dove “a herald of peace from the beginning,” and, when painted with an olive-branch in its mouth, it is to be taken in this sense. It is a symbol that we use in our own times. Noah’s ark, a type of the church often seen in the Catacombs, is connected with the dove. Perret tells us of a picture, noticed by Bottari in his Sculture e Pitture, of Noah in the ark, and the ark again within a ship. The form of the ark, according to Hebrew calculations, was a long square, but it is generally represented in the Early Christian paintings as a cube, a figure suggestive of greater stability. This system of departure from the literalness of history is too universal not to be intentional. For instance, none of these representations of the ark are without a dove, but in some a woman appears instead of Noah. Tertullian in his work on baptism says that this symbol meant the general doctrine of “the faithful, having obtained remission of their sins through baptism, receive from the Holy Spirit [the dove] the gift of divine peace [the olive-branch], and are saved in the mystical ark of the church from the destruction of the world.”

The resurrection of Lazarus, and Moses striking the rock, are both types of the resurrection and eternal life, and are often seen in juxtaposition. In one of these paintings, Lazarus is like a little child, and is clothed in bands that more resemble swaddling-clothes than a winding-sheet. Our Lord also is quite boyish. The apostles likewise are often represented as young men, so is Moses in many instances. This is thought by Perret to be symbolical of the immutability of heavenly glory. Among other types often found in the Catacombs are the anchor with a cross-shaped handle, the symbol of hope from time immemorial; the palm, a sign of victory; and the ship, the invariable type of the church of Christ. The Scriptures themselves suggest this latter idea, as they also do that of the rock, petrus. This subject is fully treated in some frescoes of the cemetery of Saint Callixtus. The rock (Christ) pours down streams of living waters, which two apostles join their hands to catch and collect for the benefit of the world. In other compositions, the rock does not pour forth water spontaneously (this was a reference to the day of Pentecost), but emits it at the touch of the rod held by Moses (the type of Peter); and in other paintings, two men appear carrying away from it baskets of bread, which are then touched with a rod by a figure supposed to be Christ. This would denote the sacramental change from bread to the flesh of Christ. Thus one type is always presupposing another or merging itself into another. In a fresco of several subjects, all referring to the Holy Eucharist, found in an ancient Christian cemetery at Alexandria, there is written over the heads of several persons assembled at a feast these words: “Eating the benedictions of the Lord.”

Now, the Greek word here used is the same that Saint Paul uses (1 Corinthians 10:16) to denote the communion of the body and blood of Christ, and, furthermore, is the identical word by which Saint Cyril of Alexandria denotes the consecrated elements.

Daniel in the lions’ den and the three children in the fiery furnace are constantly represented in the Catacombs as types of the persecutions of the church and the fortitude under them. The phœnix or palm-bird occurs as a symbol of immortality, and was graven on the tomb of Maximus by order of Saint Cecilia. The peacock also signified immortality, and came to be so used from being the bird of Juno, or the supposed emblem of the apotheosis of the Roman empresses. In one fresco in the cemetery of Saint Sixtus, we find SS. Peter and Paul represented as standing on either side of a crowned tower, doubtless a symbol of strength, figurative of the church. Perret also tells us that God the Father, “himself invisible, while his power is manifested by his works,” is typified “with singular aptitude by a hand coming forth from the clouds.” This is in a picture of Moses striking the rock.

A very beautiful representation of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, of later date however than the Catacombs, but not so late as to have lost their informing spirit, occurs in a mosaic that formerly decorated the apse of the basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. The Lamb stands at the foot of a jewelled cross, on a rock, with four streams, one running from each of its feet, and a fifth from the foot of a chalice into which the blood of the Lamb spurts down from its wounded breast. An evident allusion to the five wounds of the Lord is here combined with the type of the Holy Eucharist (for the cup suggests the latter). The cross, as such, is rarely found in the Catacombs, but the Acts of the Martyrs mention a soldier, Saint Orestes, who, while playing at throwing the disc, let fall from his garments a small cross (which, discovering his religion, procured him the glory of martyrdom), so that we may suppose that this sign of Christianity was sometimes secretly worn about the person during the early centuries. Saint Augustine, Saint Hilary, Saint Jerome, Saint Chrysostom, and our own countryman, Venerable Bede, agree in the cross being “the sign of the Son of Man” of which Jesus himself speaks in the Gospel. Tertullian quotes the vision of Ezechiel (9:4), and interprets thus the sign Tau: “Now, the Greek letter Tau and our own T is the very form of the cross, which he predicted would be the sign on our foreheads in the true Catholic Jerusalem.” Dr. Northcote tells us that the number 300, “being expressed in Greek by the letter Tau, came itself, even in apostolical times, to be regarded as the equivalent of the cross.” We know how Saint Paul speaks of the cross, as meaning the whole Christian faith. The sign of the cross, however, was contained in or appended to the monogram Chi and Rho. This was sometimes written P, while in some ancient manuscripts the Tau itself was written +, forming an exact Greek cross. Sometimes to this monogram (worn to this day as a badge by the Passionist Friars) was added the letter ?, the initial of ????t??, the Greek for conqueror. This is something similar to the inscription translated “In hoc signo vinces,” seen by Constantine in his vision outside the gates of Rome. It was in this shape that the inscription was afterwards put on the “Labarum” or banner of the cross, and also on many coins struck during the reign of Constantine.

Not to prolong the subject of the Catacombs too indefinitely, let us end with these words of Dr. Northcote: “Nothing was likely to be more familiar to the early Christians than the symbolical and prophetical meaning of the Gospels and the Old Testament, so that the sight of these paintings on the walls of the subterranean chapels was probably as a continual homily set before them…. Indeed, it is scarcely too much to say that some of these artistic compositions might be made to take the place of a well-ordered dogmatic discourse.”

When the immediate fear of persecution was removed, the church gradually added to her alphabet of symbols. The cross became more general, at first ornamented and wreathed, jewelled and gilt, as it was by order of Constantine, then by an easy transition becoming a simple crucifix, with the image of the Redeemer plainly wrought upon it. Constantine forbade the cross to be any longer used as an instrument of torture or punishment; while the finding of the true cross and the honor paid to it soon familiarized the people with its exclusively divine associations. From Mrs. Jameson’s researches we gather that the “fashion of decorating the cross with five jewels, generally rubies, typified the five sacred wounds.” We also learn from her the origin of the nimbus, or glory, so generally used after the fifth century as an attribute of holiness. At first it was borrowed from pagan sources, the “luminous nebula” of Homer – that, is the divine essence standing “a shade in its own brightness” – being, as she informs us, the first trace of it to be found in antiquity. Rays or plates of brass were sometimes fixed to the heads of imperial busts and statues in Rome, and later on it is seen round the heads of Christian emperors (Justinian in particular) who were not canonized. It strikes one as curious that Mrs. Jameson should have omitted all mention of Moses and the horns or rays of light that adorned his countenance as he came down from Mount Sinai. In the transfiguration, our Lord’s face “did shine as the sun,” and the angel that sat over against the sepulchre on the morning of the resurrection had a “countenance as lightning.” After the fifth century the nimbus became universal, and was adopted as a symbol of holiness. A cruciform glory was the distinctive emblem of God, and also a triangular one, which typifies the Trinity, and was often used later round the head of figures representing God the Father, and entirely surrounding the Holy Spirit, who was painted as a dove.

It would be quite impossible to go through the cycle of all the symbols now in use. They have varied very little since the days of Constantine, but they cover so vast a field that it would take a lifetime to study each one in detail.

The chief service of the church, the Mass, naturally strikes us first. Nearly every ceremony is connected with it, and is only complete when preceded or followed by it. Churches (often symbolical in their form and arrangement), vestments with their many hidden meanings, lights, incense, holy water, music, processions, group themselves as mere accessories round the sacrificial act which gives them their importance. The word Mass is supposed by some to be derived from the Hebrew Missach, a voluntary offering, but the most widely received opinion is that it comes from Missa or Missio, the dismissal of the catechumens before the most solemn part, the consecration. The word itself is of very ancient use, as appears from the letters of Saint Ambrose, Saint Leo, and Saint Gregory. The Gloria Patri, which is often used in the liturgy as well as constantly in the hours of the divine office, was introduced in 325 as a protest against the Arian heresy which contended that the Son was not equal to the Father. The custom of standing during the gospel signifies our readiness to defend its truths and practice its precepts. We sign our foreheads, lips, and breast in token of our resolve not to be ashamed of the cross of Christ, to profess it always in words, and to keep it for ever in our hearts. At the “Incarnatus est” in the Credo we kneel in reverence to the mystery of the God made man, and at the “Domine non sum dignus” we strike our breasts in token of penance and humiliation, as we have before done at the Confiteor. This has always been the conventional sign of sorrow, as we read of the publican in the gospels.

Of the use of lights, Saint Jerome says in his letter against the heretic Vigilantius: “Throughout all the churches of the East, when the gospel is to be recited, they bring forth lights, though it be at noonday, not certainly to drive away darkness but to manifest some sign of joy, that under the type of corporal light may be indicated that light of which we read in the Psalms – ‘Thy word is as a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.'” Everywhere in the Old and New Testaments, light is the type of knowledge; in the parable of the virgins, it is also the symbol of fidelity. In Rome, torches were carried at weddings as a sign of honor. Saint Chrysoston says that lights are carried before the dead to show that they are champions and conquerors. What more natural than that these usages should have been transferred to the Christian churches? “Within the sanctuary and in front of the altar,” says the anonymous author of the Explanation of the Sacrifice and Liturgy of the Mass, “a lamp is kept day and night, to warn us that Jesus Christ, the light of the world, is present on our altars, … and that our lives should, by their holiness, shine like a luminary.” Candles are used in several mystical senses by the church during the ceremonies of Holy Week, as chiefly the Paschal candle. This is fraught with many meanings. Unlighted, it is an emblem of Christ in the tomb, while the five grains of incense put into it in the shape of a cross typify both the five wounds of our Blessed Lord and the spices with which his dead body was buried. Contrary to the usual custom, which requires a priest to bless any holy thing, the Paschal candle is blessed by the deacon, to denote that Christ was buried by his disciples (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus), not by his apostles. When lighted, the candle prefigures Christ arisen. The Pavia Missal makes it signify, while unlighted, the pillar in the cloud which guided the Israelites by day through the desert, and, after being lighted, the fiery column that directed them at night. The columnar shape of the candlestick in many Italian churches is thought to refer to this part of the interpretation. The triple candle, which is lighted with new fire on Holy Saturday, signifies the Trinity, and in connection with this we are reminded of a curious ceremony in the Greek ritual, which consists in the benediction given by a bishop whenever he says Mass. He holds in each hand a candle – one triple, denoting the Trinity; and the other double, and symbolizing the union of two natures in Jesus Christ. The manual of Holy Week tells us that the fifteen candles on the triangular candlestick, used during the office of Tenebræ, represent the “disciples whose fervor cooled at the approach of danger, and who dispersed here and there, wavering in faith, forgetful of their promises, and all seeking safety in flight, abandoning their Master. The candle that remains lit and is finally concealed behind the altar is a figure of Jesus Christ. He came to enlighten the world; but ungrateful, perverse men made every effort to obscure and extinguish his glory. When they fancied they had succeeded, he rose from death to an immortal life, more glorious than the former.”

The whole of the ceremonies of Holy Week are nothing but a literal “showing forth of the death of the Lord until he come” – a yearly rehearsal, as it were, of the great drama of human life and destiny, of the rejection of the elder and the adoption of the younger branch of the family of men – that is, the choice of the Gentiles after the trial of the Jews. Incense, the recognized emblem of prayer, and spoken of as such in the well-known passages of the Apocalypse, also reminds us of the perfumes used in the East as a sign of honor towards kings and princes, and of the gift of the Magi to the infant Saviour. Dr. Rock says that “a venerable antiquity informs us that the incense burning round the altar, whence, as from a fountain of delicious fragrance, it emits a perfume through the house of God, has ever been regarded as a type of the good odor of Jesus Christ which should exhale from the soul of every true believer.” The frequent use of holy water is above all typical of purity, the great preparation of the soul for any holy action.

Salt is a preservative against corruption, and also reminds us of the miracle of Eliseus, when, to make the drought cease, he asked for a vessel with water and salt. The apostles are called the “salt of the earth,” and salt is recognized as the emblem of wisdom. Oil, used in many functions, is typical of sweetness and mildness, in consideration of its natural powers of healing, and from time immemorial anointing has been considered a consecration to God. Oil was also used in the old Hebrew sacrifices, together with cakes as well as salt. The “Agnus Dei” perhaps requires a fuller explanation than the former symbols. It is a waxen cake stamped with the figure of a lamb. The Pope blesses a certain quantity of these cakes every seventh year of his reign. “The origin of this rite seems to have been the very ancient custom of breaking up the Paschal candle of the preceding year and distributing the fragments among the faithful. Alcuin, a disciple of the Venerable Bede, describes the blessing in these words: ‘In the Roman Church, early on the morning of Holy Saturday, the archdeacon comes into the church and pours wax in a clean vessel, and mixes it with oil; then blesses the wax, and molds it in the form of lambs; … the lambs which the Romans make represent to us the spotless Lamb made for us; for Christ should be brought to our memories frequently by all sorts of things.'” The Asperges, or sprinkling with holy water before Mass, reminds us of the sprinkling of the blood of the Paschal lamb on the door-posts of the Israelites – a ceremony which was to be performed with a bunch of hyssop. It also refers to the Psalm Miserere, in which we pray to be “sprinkled with hyssop, and we shall be cleansed” – a prayer which forms part of the prescribed orisons to be repeated during the Asperges.

Of the symbolical meaning of the sacred vestments, and their colors, we will only speak briefly. The most obvious apology for them is their use as prescribed in the Old Testament, where they are made the subject of the most minute directions. Many things came to us through the Temple traditions, the Gregorian chant, for instance, which closely resembles that still used in the orthodox synagogues of our own day. It is not improbable that something of Hebrew traditions entered into the custom, early adopted by the Christians, of wearing specified and holy garments during the celebration of Mass. But the church, ever mindful of her mission of teaching, could not let such vestments be mere ornaments, however fitting and seemly. The author of the Explanation of the Mass says that “ceremonies are a kind of illustration of our sacred mysteries; they represent them to the eye, to a certain extent, as a look or a discourse do to the ear or mind, especially to the uneducated, who are always the greater number.” The vestments are a very prominent part of the externals of the Mass; their color announces at one glance whether a virgin or a martyr is being commemorated, whether we are to join in prayer for some unknown brother deceased in Christ, or to lament in a penitential spirit the sins of mankind and our own. Green, very seldom used, is the normal color for Sundays, denoting hope and joy in the promise of the new spring. There are two meanings attached to the different component parts of the holy vesture. The “amice” which covers the head (in ancient times entirely) represents the “helmet of salvation,” divine hope; the “alb,” innocence of life, because it clothes the celebrant from head to foot in spotless white; the “girdle,” with which the loins are girt, purity and chastity (also referring to the text of Saint Luke, “Let your loins be girt”), and possibly bearing some allusion likewise to the journey of life, and the command anciently given to the Jews at the first Pasch, “You shall gird your reins”; the “maniple,” which is put on the left arm, patience under the burdens of this mortal life; the “stole,” which is worn on the neck and shoulders, the yoke of Christ; and the “chasuble,” which, as uppermost, covers all the rest, charity – according to the saying of Saint Peter, that “charity covereth a multitude of sins.” The author of The Following of Christ, speaking of the duties and dignity of the priesthood, thus beautifully interprets the ecclesiastical apparel: “A priest clad in his sacred vestments is Christ’s vicegerent, to pray God for himself and for all the people in a suppliant and humble manner. He has before him and behind him the sign of the cross of the Lord, that he may always remember the passion of Christ. He bears the cross before him in his vestment, that he may diligently behold the footsteps of Christ, and fervently endeavor to follow them. He is marked with the cross behind, that he may mildly suffer, for God’s sake, whatsoever adversities shall befall him from others. He wears the cross before him that he may bewail his own sins, and behind him that through compassion he may lament the sins of others, and know that he is placed, as it were, a mediator between God and the sinner.”

Besides this mystical signification, the vestments also have a representative meaning. The amice is intended to recall the rag with which the Jews bandaged our Saviour’s eyes; the alb, the white garment in which Herod, in derision, clothed him; the girdle, maniple, and stole, the cords with which he was bound; the chasuble, the purple garment with which the soldiers covered him when they hailed him as a mock king, and as a complement, the cross on the chasuble represents that which Christ bore on his wounded shoulders on his way to Calvary. The priest’s tonsure, worn very conspicuously by most of the religious orders, is a type of the crown of thorns.

The ceremonies of marriage are interesting from their symbolical meaning, but are so familiar that it is useless to dwell on them. In the Greek Church, a glass of wine is partaken of by the bride and bridegroom, as a type of the community of possession which is henceforth to exist between them. The use of the ring is not confined to earthly nuptials; it is worn, as we know, by bishops as a sign of union with their sees, and also by many orders of nuns, as a pledge of their mystical bridal with their heavenly Spouse. The rites of initiation and profession in some of the religious orders of women are full of symbolism. In the taking of the white veil among the Dominicanesses at Rome, the novice is asked to choose between a crown of thorns and a wreath of roses placed before her on the altar. The hair is shorn, as a sign of detachment from the vanities of this world. At the profession the nun prostrates herself, and is entirely covered with a funereal pall, while the choir chants in solemn cadence the psalm for the dead – De Profundis. This awful expression of her utter renunciation of the world has a most mysterious effect on any one who is happy enough to witness it. The grating and curtains that, in some orders, screen the religious from view, even during their friends’ visits to the “parlor,” are only a visible sign of the entire separation between them and all, even the most innocent, earthly ties. And speaking of religious orders, we are reminded of the peculiar ceremonies which, with some of them, enhance the solemnity of the divine office. Of these, a biographer of Saint Dominic says, with true mediæval instinct, that it was no wonder that Dominic should have tried to imitate, in the many bowings and prostrations of the white-robed monks, the pageantry of angelic adoration which he had so often seen in visions – the folding of the many myriad wings, and the casting down of golden crowns before the throne of the Lamb. And yet, while we are thinking of this beautiful interpretation, there comes another thought – that of churches as bare as the monastery itself, and of a ritual so simple that it would satisfy the veriest Covenanter. The Trappists especially, the Cistercians and Franciscans also, are forbidden any display in ceremonial, and any costliness in material, with regard to the worship of God. Poverty is to reign even in their churches; and thus we have an asylum provided for those minds whose ascetic turn inclines them to ignore everything but the most spiritual and internal expression of faith. Thus, in old times, Saint Paul of the Desert abode among caves and wild beasts, and Saint Simeon Stylites passed his life on the summit of an isolated column. Prayer without the slightest incentive to it, meditation without any outward suggestions to strengthen it – such was their life. They never heard glorious chants nor saw processions of clerics clad in golden robes; no ritual, no symbol even, was there to help them on; and yet they were saints. There are such minds still now; the church has a place for them – a place among her rarest and choicest children, for, after all, “they have chosen the good part, and it shall not be taken from them.”

But for the majority symbolism is language, ceremonial is reading. And because others who do not understand this language rail at it, should we forget or give it up? Rather should we explain it to them; for who does not know how much pleasure may one day be derived from a tongue that to-day seems barbarous? Who can read Goethe till he has mastered the grammar of one of the richest languages in the world? or who can enjoy Dante till he has learnt to read him familiarly in the liquid original? Even so with Catholics; others must learn the Catholic alphabet before they pronounce upon the magnificent poems contained in our ceremonial. See this picture of the crucifixion – for in this one subject all our religion is enfolded. It is a mediæval painting. The arms of our Saviour are spread wide, almost on a level with his head; Mary, John, and Magdalen stand beneath; the penitent thief is beside him on his own cross. Two angels in flowing robes hold jewelled chalices under his pierced hands to collect the drops of blood, and other angels are seen in the clouds above, with musical instruments in their hands. This is no literal representation of the scene on Mount Calvary, no realistic picture of the thunder cloud, the brutal soldiery, the opened graves, such as we see by the dozen nowadays. It is not so much a picture of the crucifixion as of the redemption. It occupies itself merely with the mystical sense of the great sacrifice; the figures beneath the cross are not portraits, in attitudes of human desolation, but representatives of the church of the faithful on earth; the good thief is put there for the aggregate of repentant sinners; the angels in the clouds rather celebrate the redemption of the world than lament the death of God; and the instruments they play are – we may well suppose it – meant to typify the consecration of art to religious purposes; the cup-bearing angels, catching the drops of blood as they fall, are types of the adoration paid to the saving blood of Jesus through all generations, and of the untold preciousness of this great treasure; in the chalices, also, we see a distinct allusion to the sacrifice of the Mass; finally, the widely extended arms mean – at least, they came to mean it not long after – the universal nature of the redemption; and therefore the Jansenists, when they taught that Christ died only for those who are actually saved, painted their crucifixes with the arms uplifted high above the head.

So our Catholic symbolism is an open book, a text for the highest art, and a guide to the humblest mind. It has chapters for all – for poverty, nudity, and coarseness are as symbolical as magnificence and oriental grace. The despoiled altars of Good Friday are as eloquent as the procession of Palms or the Easter exuberance of decoration; the crib and the straw of Christmas are not less fraught with meaning than the decked tabernacles of Corpus Christi.

In a Benedictine abbey you will hear soul-stirring strains of the most solemn harmony; in a Carmelite convent you will listen to a chorus of nuns who are forbidden to use more than three notes with which to vary their singing of the divine office; in a Trappist retreat you will watch for the slightest sound, and hear nothing save the muffled fall of clods of earth as a monk digs his own grave, or the salutation, “Brother, we must all die,” as another monk passes him on his way to a similar occupation. Let those who do not understand our symbolical language pause and learn it; and no doubt, learning to read it as we do, they will soon come to read it with us in the brotherhood of the faith.

– text taken from the article “The Symbolism of the Church”, author not listed, in the August 1872 edition of The Catholic World magazine