Wednesday, April 5, 2017

In Praise of Allegory

Interpreting the ceremonies and rubrics of Holy Mass in their allegorical sense (i.e., as symbolic of Christ) has largely gone out of fashion--to put it kindly. The truth is, when I was a seminarian and (perforce) had to take a certain number of "liturgy" classes, the allegorical interpretation of Mass was dismissed out of hand. My professors apparently didn't think any real explanation was needed to justify their airy contempt.
     Everything about the Mass was explained according to--let's say--a utility model. The amice may have been likened to the "helmet of salvation," of which St. Paul speaks, but it was the remnant of a cloth to keep the priest's head warm. "Helmet of salvation"? Fanciful imagery added after the fact and nothing more--according to these professors (and those like them).
     And so, all the ceremonies of the Mass received (and still do, with most "liturgical scholars") similar treatment: the Gloria in excelsis is not allegorically the Angelic hymn (for instance) at the Savior's birth (and hence placed at the beginning of Mass) but added from the pontifical rite of Mass in Late Antiquity. To explain the origins of a ceremony historically, is to know everything worth knowing about it, from a scientific point of view.

It's just a bird.
I realize that this will not win me much respect among those liturgically "in the know," but my answer to this point of view is: complete and total nonsense! To know something about a ceremony (or anything really) is to know something about it--which is of course good. To say that we understand it (or anything for that matter that falls under our senses) is to speak in gross exaggeration and almost willful self-deceit. It's like the adult--as Chesterton complains--who dismisses his child's fascination with a small bird by saying, "It's only a sparrow." I feel the same cold wind of pride when someone says that the Elevations at Mass were "only introduced to combat the heresy of Berengarius."
     We can have great confidence--I would argue--in pursuing the allegorical interpretation of the ceremonies of the Mass; that is, we may feel assured that we may see in them something of Christ Himself (i.e., their allegorical sense). And this I would maintain first of all because (as all of us who attended the traditional Roman rite of Mass on Laetare Sunday heard read) St. Paul tells the Galatians:
"But he who was of the bondwoman [Ismael] was born according to the flesh; but he of the free woman [Isaac] was by promise; which things are said by an allegory. For these are the two testaments." 
Certainly if we have it on Catholic and divine authority that the events of the prior Testament are an allegory of the present one, a fortiori the content--or deposit, if you will--of the New Testament speaks of Christ in every way and therefore may be more accurately known by allegory.
     Still, I'd be the first to agree that not all allegorical interpretations of the Mass are equal. Some are forced to the point that they almost seem to contradict the very actions and words they seek to explain: the priest washing his hands, for example, is allegorically the figure of Pilate, even though he is saying silently: "I shall wash my hands among the innocent."
     We need, clearly, a good, reliable guide: not merely someone of sound piety and love for the Mass (great and necessary though they are) but learned in the "Sacred Page" and Sacred Theology. Enter the "Angel of the Apocalypse," St. Vincent Ferrer (whose feast is today).

St. Vincent Ferrer, Angel of the Apocalypse

I only wish I could do adequate honor to this truly astounding and amazing Saint. He more than earned his familiar title of "Wonder-Worker" (the only one in the western martyrology, so far as I know, to counterpoise St. Gregory Thaumaturgus). He was, as well, a devoted and esteemed commentator on St. Thomas. His canonization process remains the only one in the history of such things to cease taking evidence of miracles from living witnesses, because the number had grown to over four hundred (to say nothing, of course, of those miracles worked after his death). He boldly proclaimed to the doctors of Salamanca (along with a large crowd) that he was the Angel foretold by the Apocalypse to seal the elect before the Last Day (Apoc. 7: 2) and then silenced their accusations of heresy by raising a woman from the dead in their presence, who then testified that the Saint was indeed the Angel promised by God. Some theologians considered that, had it not been for the life and work of St. Vincent, God would have brought about the end of the world at that time. And so, in effect, the fact that you and I are even in existence may well be due in part to this matchless priest.
      Closer to home--for the followers of this blog--St. Vincent is said to have celebrated a Missa cantata or solemnis each day, evidently preferring the more solemn form of Mass to the simpler Missa lecta. Accordingly, in his allegorical commentary on the Mass, St. Vincent explicitly states that he is considering solemn Mass with three ministers.

A Work Pleasing and Beloved of God

St. Vincent's essential justification for the allegorical explanation of Mass rests on two precepts of Sacred Scripture. The first is from the Blessed Mother: "Do whatever He shall say to you" (John 2: 5). The second is Christ's own command: "Do this in commemoration of Me" (Luke 22: 19 and I Cor. 11: 23). The Saint would have us note that the command to perform the Sacrament is done not merely in memory of Our Lord's Passion but of His entire life ("of Me"). Accordingly, to see in the ceremonies of Solemn Mass a kind of reflection of Christ's entire being is--he states--a discourse that is "pleasing to God and beloved of Him," as well as "advantageous and meritorious" for us all. Since we have the assurance of a Saint that this is so, let's sample some of St. Vincent's insights, shall we?
     The work of the Incarnation. This is the first (of thirty enumerated by the Saint) of the works of Christ when he "vested Himself with humanity ... because His divinity is hidden secretly beneath His humanity." Just as all three Persons of the Trinity effected the work of the Incarnation, so all three ministers ("hidden" in the sacristy as Christ was hidden in the immaculate womb of the Virgin) vest the celebrant.
The Holy Sacrifice: the work of the Three Persons
     The work of the Nativity. Just as Christ was born between Joseph and the Virgin Mother, in the presence of the ox and ass, with choirs of Angels praising God while the shepherds rejoiced: so too, in the Mass, the celebrant emerges from the sacristy between deacon and subdeacon, the acolythes representing the ox and ass, while the torch-bearers recall the splendor of that holy night, while (during the Introit) the Gloria Patri reflects the angelic hymn and (as was the custom at some places) the ringing of the bells overhead symbolizes "the joy of the shepherds as they played their bagpipes."
     The other Mysteries of the Infancy are present (in ways that surprise us nowadays, unused as we are to allegory), says the Saint, in the particular prayers and ceremonies at the very beginning of Mass: the Circumcision in the celebrant's proclaiming himself a sinner (in the Confiteor) as Our Lord presented Himself as a member of sinful mankind in need of circumcision; the adoration of the Magi with their gifts of frankincense (matched with the celebrant's bow at the foot of the altar), gold (with his kiss of adoration), and myrrh (with his making the sign of the Cross).
     Interestingly, in St. Vincent's interpretation, the celebrant washing his hands is representative of Christ's baptism in the Jordan, when He sanctified the waters. A much more satisfying allegory than the parallel often drawn with Pilate's hand-washing.

There are many other ingenious and thought-provoking allegories in St. Vincent's exposition. In every case (or "work of Christ," as he divides his discourse), he goes over the event and significance of each part of Christ's life and then draws the parallel with the actions of the celebrant and the sacred ministers during Mass.
     Christ's preaching of repentance when He emerges from His fast in the desert (i.e., the long period of the celebrant's silence during the Offertory and Secret prayers) is embodied in the Sursum corda! [Lift up your hearts!] of the Preface. Similarly, His many miracles, proof of His divinity (as St. Vincent emphasizes, good Thomist that he is), are represented by the "Holy, Holy, Holy," since it was through the three Persons alone that Christ's miracles were worked.
     Further food for meditation is the Saint's allegorization of the Seven Words from the Cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"; "This day shalt thou be with Me in paradise"; and so forth. These Seven Words were well known to our forebears in the Faith because they were so frequently preached on during Lent and especially on Good Friday. (Haydn, among others, composed a series of "sonatas" to be played between each of  seven sermons on the Words.) These Seven Words are represented in the Mass when the celebrant sings the seven petitions of the Our Father. In some cases ("Father, forgive them," etc.) there is an obvious correlation with one of the petitions ("Forgive us our trespasses," etc.). In other cases--"Behold, thy Mother"--more thought and meditation is needed.
     Finally, the last moments of Christ's life among us (His commissioning of the Apostles and Ascension into heaven) are reflected in the Ite, Missa Est and the last blessing, just as Christ raised His hands in blessing as He ascended into heaven. Even so, after the blessing (in the Dominican rite of Mass), the celebrant and the ministers withdraw from the altar and return to the sacristy.

     As with the Rosary, there is something very consoling and heartening about considering the entire life of Christ, and it is--in my view--fortunate that we have in St. Vincent both a learned and devout guide to seeing in the ceremonies of Holy Mass a vivid and accurate representation of Our Lord's coming among us. If this too brief introduction is of some use to our readers and makes it easier for them to see Mass as it truly is--the gift of God, formed and perfected by the Holy Spirit--then it will have been more than worthwhile.
(Spanish and Italian versions of St. Vincent's The Life of Christ Represented in the Holy Mass are available on the internet. Alas, so far I have not been able to locate an English translation.)



    1. Here's one for those wanting a pdf:,%20THE%20.pdf

    2. Thank you, Paul! That's very helpful.

  2. "To know something about a ceremony (or anything really) is to know something about it--which is of course good."

    Perfectly stated.

    This is inspired and verily right. Not only must we cure ourselves of the historicist belief that to know the origin of something is an excuse to discard it, but an allegorical understanding of the Eucharistic Sacrifice also underscores that the priest and other ministers serve Christ and the Holy Spirit, Who really *do* what happens on the altar, not Fr. Skippy.

  3. This is beautiful; great post and links.

    Thank you

    1. Dear ABS, You are very welcome! May God bless you and yours!

  4. Father Capreolus, you have introduced me to an aspect of St. Vincent Ferrer that I have never encountered and I am thankful for that.

    Forgive me if I sound impertinent, but how far does the allegorical interpretation stretch back? Did Popes Leo I and Gregory I (whom I consider as the ones who contributed greatly to the development of the Roman Rite) interpret the Mass allegorically?

    1. Dear Mirai,
      That is a good question. Both Doctors frequently make use of the "moral" interpretation of the Gospels, i.e. the interpretation of the things described in the Gospels as they apply to the soul's relation to God, which is a kind of allegorical writing. However, I don't have any specific knowledge that either interpreted the Mass itself allegorically. I will think it over, though. Thank you for the intriguing suggestion.

  5. I could not read your post without some serious prayers and eventually during reading aloud in English not my native tongue a prayer to the icon of Virgin Mary Joy of all who sorrow, I started to cry .. couldn't finish..couldn't figure out why I cry... then I remembered your sparrow and allegory ..and I could concentrate on it. But the picture of it still makes me weep don't know why..
    Anyway God hears you, I really feel this I hope He helps you with your requests also. That is one good picture... still crying.