As human persons, God (potentially) gives us five senses: …to See, to Hear, to Touch, to Smell, and to Taste. Given these gifts, we note that we are different than the angels. Unlike our heavenly helpers, who are purely spiritual beings, we humans have been created with both spirit (soul) and matter (body).
According to the Baltimore Catechism, “a sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to bring grace.” In each of the 7 Sacraments, God (through His Church) uses physical signs in order that we might encounter grace at a human level. Through the millennia, the Church has also discerned that each Sacrament has a special matter and form that is required in order to bring about the intended grace.
- For BAPTISM, the matter used is water (through pouring or immersion). The form: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The ordinary minister is a bishop, priest, or deacon.
- For CONFIRMATION, the matter is the imposition of hands and anointing with the Oil of Chrism. The form: “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” The ordinary minister is the bishop.
- For EUCHARIST, the matter is wheat bread and natural grape wine. The form: “Take this all of you…Do this in memory of me.” The minister is a bishop or priest.
- For RECONCILIATION, the matter is the confession of sins committed after baptism (remote), contrition, confession, and penance (proximate). The form: “…I absolve you from your sins, in the name of Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The minister is a bishop or priest.
- For the ANOINTING OF THE SICK, the matter is anointing with the Oil of the Sick. The form: “Through this holy anointing…” The minister is a bishop or priest.
- For MATRIMONY, the matter and form entail the free exchange of consent between the spouses. The ministers are the bride and groom, while the witness is a bishop, priest, or deacon.
- For HOLY ORDERS, the matter is the imposition of hands. The form is the prayer of consecration for a bishop, priest, or deacon. The minister is the bishop.
Like the sacraments, places also have a profound ability to shape us. In 1941, a German bomb destroyed the chamber in which Britain’s House of Commons had met for almost a century. Afterward, several members of Parliament suggested that the old Gothic-style chamber with choir-style stalls facing one another should be replaced by a more modern chamber, with seats fanned out in a semi-circle, like the legislatures of France and the United States. Winston Churchill opposed this modernization, arguing before the same House of Commons that “first we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
At worship, we are touched by our environment. The beauty of the Mass is an invitation to the faithful to turn toward the Lord. The altar, candles and flowers, vestments, crucifix, and incense (among others) are means for the Church to reveal Jesus more fully to us in order that we might gather to relive his Paschal mystery. In the Psalmists (84:1-2) words: “How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord.”
What we see at Mass, then, not only visually imparts the Church’s teachings; but it also brings us into a richer relationship with God, who, in St. Bonaventure’s words, “descends upon the altar…as He did when he became man the first time in the womb of the Virgin Mary.” As such, the symbols used at Holy Mass cry to heaven!
The Altar is the Cornerstone
St. Padre Pio insisted that “if you want to assist at Holy Mass with devotion and fruitfulness, keep company with the sorrowful Virgin at the foot of the cross on Calvary.” We should approach the altar as if we are approaching the very place Jesus was crucified. The first altar was the simple wooden table used by Christ at the Last Supper and the early Christians likely celebrated the Eucharist in the same way.
After Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine, Christians began to use stone altars, recalling the Gospel of Matthew (21:42), when Christ revealed that He is the “stone that the builders rejected that has become the cornerstone.” As such, throughout the ages, the altar has represented the imperishable Church.
In many altars, objects are placed within them. Small altar stones represent both Calvary, the rock on which our Lord was sacrificed, and Christ himself “the spiritual rock.” (1 Cor 10:4) Similarly, the relics of saints recall the image in Revelation (6:9): “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God and for the witness they had borne.”
An Altar shrouded in glory
Saint John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia de Eucharistia that: “…like the woman who anointed Jesus in Bethany, the Church has feared no extravagance, devoting the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist.”
White linens recall the shroud that covered the body of our Savior after his death. They also symbolize the faithful, who are, as Benedictine liturgist Fr. D.I. Lanslots says are “the precious garment of Christ.” Throughout the year, altar cloths adorn our altars except on Holy Thursday (when the altar is stripped after Mass) and left exposed on Good Friday as a remembrance of Christ’s disrobing during His Passion.
Candles announce that Jesus is the Light of the World: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” (Matt. 4:16). Candles are also made of wax (which consume themselves), representing Jesus, who sacrifices himself for us.
Flowers, too, adorned the altars of the earliest Christians, reminding them of the garden of Eden, where neither man nor flower suffered death. A disciple of St. Francis said “Three things has God left us from the earthly paradise: the stars, the flowers, and the eye of a child.” Their beauty recalls the life of Jesus, “a lily among brambles” (Song 2:2), but they will soon wilt and die, recalling His death.
They shall Look on Him whom they have Pierced (Jn. 19:37)
The Crucifix above the altar reveals the entire meaning of the Catholic liturgy. According to Justin Martyr, “the crucifix is the most important material symbol during Mass, for without the cross, the earth is not tilled.” The Church requires (GIRM 308) that there is a cross at the celebration of Mass “with the figure of Christ crucified upon it…where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord and that the priest is as Christ on Calvary as he celebrates Mass.”
Cup of Salvation: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Mt 26:39)
The Paten and Chalice (which hold the Body and Blood of our Lord after the consecration) are the most important objects on the altar. One symbol attached to the Chalice is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, for both contain the blood of the Lamb, and both dispense the blood that brings the grace of salvation to the faithful. From the earliest days (to the present), the Church has desired that these sacred vessels be of the highest dignity (in terms of their materials).
Commenting on the life of Dorothy Day (A Saint for our Age), author Jim Forest recalls:
“Pleased as she was when home Masses were allowed and the liturgy translated into English, Dorothy didn’t take kindly to smudging the border between the sacred and the mundane. When a priest close to the community used a coffee cup for a chalice at a Mass celebrated in the soup kitchen on First Street, she afterwards took the cup, kissed it, and buried it in the backyard. It was no longer suited for coffee, for it had held the Blood of Christ. I learned more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon. It was a learning experience for the priest, as well. Thereafter, he used a chalice.”
Garments White as Light
The vestments worn by bishops, priests and deacons include the alb, cincture, stole, and chasuble (dalmatic).
The alb is a white garment that covers the clergyman from shoulders to feet. In symbolizing the sanctifying grace of baptism, it is also reminiscent of Christ’s transfiguration at Mount Tabor, when He appeared in garments “white as light.” (Mt. 17:2). The color white also prompts the minister to remember the innocence and purity that are his callings. The vesting prayer for the alb is: “Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.”
The cincture is a cord fastened around the waist. It represents the cords that restrained Jesus as He was scourged, and it also evokes the modesty and moral constraint bound to the priestly ministry. The vesting prayer attached to the cincture is: “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.”
The stole was a neckpiece worn by the upper classes of society and associated with authority. In liturgical actions, it is draped around the neck, expressing the spiritual authority the bishop, priest, or deacon exercises in the duties of office. It also symbolizes the ropes with which Christ was tied, reminding the ordained of the burdens of ministry. The vesting prayer of the stole is: “Restore to me, O Lord, the state of immortality, which I lost through the sin of my first parents and, although unworthy to approach your sacred mysteries, may I deserve nevertheless eternal joy.”
The chasuble (dalmatic) is the outer vestment (from the Latin, casuala, meaning “small house”). This vestment literally and symbolically overlays all the other vestments- as all other virtues begin with and rely on the supreme virtue of charity. The vesting prayer of the chasuble (dalmatic) is “O Lord, who hast said, ‘My yoke is sweet and my burden light,’ grant that I may so carry it as to merit your grace.”
You see, we are formed by what we see, and within the liturgy, we are also changed by what we hear, touch, smell, and taste. By shaping our churches and the material symbols in them, something mysterious happens. Our churches shape us!
ADAPTED FROM: What Do You See at Mass? Anthony E. Clark, This Rock magazine; Catholic Book of Quotations, Leo Knowles, Our Sunday Visitor; Our Catholic Tradition: Symbols and Images in Church, Loyola Press; The Essential Catholic Handbook of Sacraments, Liguori Publications.