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 semicircle, like the legislatures of France and America. Winston Churchill opposed the modernization, arguing before the House of Commons that “first we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Similarly, the material elements of the Mass—such as the altar with its linens, candles and flowers, the priest’s vestments, and the crucifix—affect our hearts and minds even when we’re unaware of it. If those elements are truly beautiful, they bring to mind the Psalmist’s words:
How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord (Ps. 84:1–2).
The beauty of the Mass is an invitation to the faithful to turn toward the Lord. The altar, the candles, incense, crucifix—even the flowers arrayed in the sanctuary—are means for the Church to reveal Jesus more fully to the faithful gathered to relive his Passion.
At Mass, the faithful can truly come facie ad faciem Dei—face to face with God. Pope Benedict XVI noted that sacred art and symbolism make “the Church’s common faith visible.” He suggested that holy images should “lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, to awaken new senses in us, and to teach us a new kind of seeing, which perceives the Invisible and the visible” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius, 133).
What we see at Mass not only visually imparts the Church’s teachings; 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.”
The Altar Is the Cornerstone
St. Padre Pio inscribed these words in Madame Katherina Tangari’s missal: “If you want to assist at Holy Mass with devotion and fruitfully, keep company with the sorrowful Virgin at the foot of the cross on Calvary” (Tangari, Stories of Padre Pio, TAN, 133). In other words, approach the altar as if you are approaching the very place Jesus was crucified.
The first altar was the simple wooden table used by Christ at the Last Supper. The early Christians, when they were safe from their persecutors, most likely celebrated the Eucharist in the same way. After Christianity was legalized under Constantine, Christians began to use stone altars, recalling the Gospel of Matthew, when Christ reveals that he is the “stone that the builders rejected [that] has become the cornerstone” (Matt. 21:42, English Standard Version). Through the ages, the altar-table (mensa) has represented the imperishable Church.
Altars today contain a small altar stone representing both Calvary—the rock on which our Lord was sacrificed—and Christ himself, “the spiritual rock” (1 Cor. 10.4, NIV). The altar stone is consecrated by a bishop in one of the most solemn liturgical events in the Church. Wine, salt, and ashes—representing the divine and human nature of Christ—are blessed and mixed in holy water to form a chrism. Using the chrism, the bishop traces five crosses upon the altar stone, symbolizing Christ’s five wounds from which the grace of our salvation springs. Relics of saints, frequently martyrs, are placed beneath the altar-stone, recalling the image in Revelation: “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” (Rev. 6:9). The altar is installed in an elevated place to represent Calvary. When the priest approaches the altar to celebrate Mass, he is, in persona Christi, ascending to reenact Christ’s sacrifice.
Shrouded in Glory
Since the most holy event on earth, the summit of Catholic life, occurs on the altar, the Church embellishes it with fitting symbols. In the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II wrote:
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 (EE 48).
The white linens that adorn the altar recall the shroud that covered the body of our Savior after his death. They also symbolize the faithful, who are, as the Benedictine liturgist Fr. D. I. Lanslots said, “the precious garment of Christ.” Typically, the altar cloths are blessed and cover the altar throughout the year—except on Holy Thursday, when the altar is stripped after Mass and left exposed on Good Friday to bring to mind the disrobing during Christ’s 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 used for Mass are made of wax, which consumes itself, representing Jesus, who sacrifices himself for us.
There is evidence that the practice of decorating the altar with flowers began with the early Christians. Cut flowers are a reminder of the garden of Eden, where neither man nor flower suffered death. One of St. Francis’s disciples reportedly 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 soon wilt and die, recalling his death.
Him Whom They Have Pierced
The cross is another salutary representation in the celebration of Mass. Pious Catholics used to venerate the cross by making the sign of the cross when the processional crucifix passed by them at the beginning of Mass and then bowing respectfully toward the priest, who is in persona Christi. This beautiful practice is still seen in churches throughout France and has been happily observed at the reverently celebrated Mass at Mother Angelica’s Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002), the Church requires 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” (GIRM 308). The image of the suffering Christ “calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord”—and also for the priest, who is as Christ on Calvary as he celebrates Mass—and bears witness to the Gospel of St. John, which says, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (John 19:37). Pope Pius XII wrote in his encyclical Mediator Dei:
The august sacrifice of the altar is therefore no simple commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ; it is truly and properly the offering of a sacrifice, wherein by an unbloody immolation the high priest does what he has already done on the cross, offering himself to the eternal Father as a most acceptable victim (MD 68).
The crucifix is the most important material symbol during Mass, for as Justin Martyr said, “without the cross, the earth is not tilled.” The Church, as Paul exclaimed, endeavors above all actions in the Mass to preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). The crucifix above the altar reveals the entire meaning of the Catholic liturgy.
Cup of Salvation
The paten and the chalice, which hold the body and blood of our Lord after the consecration, are the most important objects on the altar. While the sacred vessels used by early Christians were certainly not as elaborate as those used in the Middle Ages, still, the early popes desired to make the chalices and patens used in Mass worthy of the dignity of their function. In the third century, Pope Urban I forbade the use of wooden chalices, and later pontiffs abolished the use of stone, glass, and horn. Currently, the Church asks that the chalice be made of precious metal and gilded. 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. Christ in Gethsemane cried, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39), and the hearts of the faithful answer at every Mass, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:13).
Garments White as Light
The priest himself is a trenchant messenger of the Church’s teachings. St. Ignatius of Antioch said that of all created dignities the priesthood is the most sublime; St. John Chrysostom asserted that one who honors a priest honors Christ, and one who insults a priest insults Christ. The office of the priesthood, which turns ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord, is perhaps higher than even that of the holy angels. For this reason the liturgy of the Church adorns priests with garments worthy of their function at the altar. The visible signs worn by the priest at Mass also inspire a greater understanding and respect for what occurs invisibly. The vestments worn by the priest include the alb, the cincture, the stole, and the chasuble; the vesting prayers said by the priest as he dresses for Mass disclose their meanings. The first vestment put on is the alb, a white garment covering the priest from his shoulders to his feet. Symbolizing the sanctifying grace of baptism, the alb is also reminiscent of Christ’s transfiguration at Mount Tabor, when he appeared in garments “white as light” (Matt. 17:2). The color white also prompts the priest to remember the innocence and purity that are his callings. The vesting prayer 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 next vestment to be donned is the cincture, 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 traditional 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, derived from a neckpiece worn by the upper classes of society and associated with authority, is draped around the neck, expressing the spiritual authority he exercises in the duties of his office. It also symbolizes the ropes with which Christ was tied, reminding the priest of the burdens of his 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.”
My Burden Is Light
The most conspicuous garment worn by the priest during Mass is the chasuble, or outer vestment, from the Latin casuala, meaning “small house.” Msgr. Peter Elliot notes that “the beauty and dignity of this most visible Eucharistic vestment is essential in a properly ordered liturgy” (Elliot, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, Ignatius, 125). When a new priest receives the chasuble at his ordination, the bishop exclaims to him, “Receive the sacerdotal garment, for the Lord is powerful to increase in you charity and perfection.” The chasuble literally and symbolically overlays all the other vestments—as all other virtues begin with and rely on the supreme virtue of charity.
The chasuble originally consisted of rather large circular cloths with a hole in the middle for the priest’s head to fit through; they were so large, in fact, that it required two assistants to fold each side to allow the priest’s hands to emerge for the celebration of Mass. In time, though, chasubles were tailored to accommodate easier movement. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the twentieth century, the back of the chasuble (viewed by the faithful during the eucharistic prayer) was normally embroidered with an image of the cross or a Y-shaped symbol that represented Christ’s arms stretched upward in his final agony. As the priest places this last vestment over his shoulders he intones, “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.”
We Are Formed by What We See
In its perennial wisdom, the Church employs a principle similar to the one Winston Churchill professed in his address to Parliament: Like Churchill, the Church has declared that first we shape our churches and the material symbols in them, and then our churches and their symbols shape us. We are formed by the things we see, and the visual clues in the liturgy—the altar, its adornments, the sacred vessels, and the priestly vestments—influence how we perceive our religion. In turn, the Catholic form of celebrating Mass is made manifest in the material expressions of the liturgy and clarified by the visible symbols enshrined in the liturgical environment. The symbols used in Catholic worship cry to heaven at each celebration of the Holy Mass, Quam terribilis est haec hora! (How awesome is this hour!).