From traffic lights to great works of art, man makes certain symbols to communicate concepts and adorn countless occasions in life. The more solemn the occasion, the more profound and impactful the signs and ceremonies associated with it; and most are instructive in some way or another. We long to express things which ordinary words cannot adequately communicate, and so turn to the language of symbols.
In this, we image our Creator.
Yet even from Apostolic times, the Catholic conviction is that something more is going on in the many signs and symbols that constitute the Liturgy of Holy Mass, beyond man-made decoration, religious instruction, or moral encouragement.
Somehow, the liturgy is different.
We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know
Sadly, this sensibility has widely diminished; particularly after the waves of didacticism and reductionism carried in by the 16th century Protestant revolt, followed by the flattening-out effect of the Enlightenment’s rationalist philosophy in the 18th. Finally, as the heresy of modernism ballooned into the 20th century, taking (and yet maintaining) hold in many sectors of Catholic thought and life, this original conviction about the fundamental “difference” of Liturgy was vastly lost.
Today, even those who still retain Catholic faith in the Eucharist often hold a gravely reductionist understanding of Liturgy, as adroitly observed by none other than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on several occasions. To take just one:
“[T]he wrong path up which we might be led [is] a Neoscholastic sacramental theology that is disconnected from the living form of the Liturgy. On that basis, people might reduce the ‘substance’ [of Liturgy] to the matter and form of the sacrament and say: Bread and wine are the matter of the sacrament; the words of institution are its form. Only these two things are really necessary; everything else is changeable. …The Liturgical Movement had in fact been attempting to overcome this reductionism, the product of an abstract sacramental theology, and to teach us to understand the Liturgy as a living network of Tradition that had taken concrete form, that cannot be torn apart into little pieces but that has to be seen and experienced as a living whole.”
In truth, a great portion of the faithful today still hold this reductionist view of Liturgy, seeing its traditional signs, symbols, and ceremonies as basically “up for grabs” and readily dispensable. Yet if our Catholic forebears across the ages (to say nothing of many saints and theologians) were convinced that something more is going on in the Liturgy beyond that which they themselves could add or ascribe to it, then the faithful today must work to recover this understanding.
For something more is going on in the Liturgy – but what?
CREDO in unum Deum,
factorem caeli et terrae,
visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
Far from being freely disposable “extras,” our forebears knew that the ceremonies of Mass in and of themselves held a certain transcendent significance, rooted in the Christian profession of faith in God as Maker of things visible and invisible. The Liturgy holds what is termed mystical signification, a reality which, As Fr. Crean succinctly explains in his The Mass and the Saints, resembles the Church’s reading of Sacred Scripture:
“Sacred Scripture has both a literal and a mystical sense. The literal sense is that expressed by the words themselves and intended by their human author. The mystical sense is that which God has placed within it, and has signified by the events that the words record… That something similar is true of the Mass is a recurring theme in the tradition of the Church.”
The same God Who guided the historical events of the Old Covenant to prefigure the fullness of His Revelation in Christ also embedded a further meaning into the bare words recorded by those human authors whom He employed in the composition of Scripture: for He is its primary Author, and “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter” (Prov 25:2).
Similarly, the various words and gestures of the Liturgy, while holding their own external significance for instructing and edifying the faithful, simultaneously conceal and reveal a further, transcendent reality: the very life of Heaven.
Like the veiled sacred images of Passiontide, a thing tremendous and solid stands just behind the words and gestures which make up the fabric of Liturgy. Yet unlike our man-made veils of violet which adorn lifeless images for a season, the weaving of Liturgy was begun in history by God Himself, its development is overseen by Him through time, and behind it move all His living mysteries, perceptible and fruitful in us according to our reverent attention and devotion.
Much as infants are unable to fully understand or employ the language of their parents, our earthly frame cannot abide the direct disclosure of divine realities. “How will you believe, if I shall speak to you heavenly things?” (Jn 3:12) Yet this higher reality – indeed, Truth in Person – has so accommodated Himself to our finitude that for our salvation, He came into our own time and space at the Incarnation, to perpetuate ever afterward His saving action and mysterious Presence through the membrane of Liturgy. He perfects this membrane over time through the faithful agency of His Body, the Church.
In fact, this membrane is permeable – for at its peak moment the Liturgy effects what it signifies, and the Incarnate Lord Himself “comes across,” presenting Himself on the altar under the appearances of bread and wine. This is why the Church speaks of herself and her Liturgy as the continuation of the Incarnation. Benedict XVI again:
“In these rites I discover that something is approaching me here that I did not produce myself, that I am entering into something greater than myself, which ultimately derives from divine revelation. This is why the Christian East calls the liturgy the ‘Divine Liturgy’, expressing thereby the liturgy’s independence from human control… the feast in which the great reality comes to us that we ourselves do not manufacture but receive as a gift.”
Tradition Is Essential
Far from some fringe esotericism or liturgical romanticism, the reality of this mystical signification helps explain why even the bare notion of the Church “making” Liturgy is utterly absent from Catholic thought ere the 20th century, and remains as foreign to a fully Catholic understanding as the idea of making a miracle.
For as addressed in our series on “liturgical preference” (cf. Part I here), the critical element in maintaining the Liturgy as truly “right and just” is its recognition as a living embodiment of Tradition, a sacred heritage given by God, to be preserved in its integrity and handed on according to its own nature.
It should therefore come as no surprise to find that a number of early Fathers held that the Apostles were personally instructed by Christ as to the form and certain ceremonies of the Mass, as part of the “many more things” that were not explicitly recorded in Scripture (cf. Jn 21:25). For surely, the God Who prescribed such detail and required such precision of Moses in Old Covenant worship (cf. Ex 25) would show no less attention and care for the development of the rites enshrining His True Sacrifice. Fathers like St. Basil agreed that the sacred rites of the New Covenant were purposefully not recorded due to their surpassing holiness, writing in 375 AD:
“As everyone knows, we are not content in the liturgy simply to recite the words recorded by St. Paul or the Gospels, but we add other words both before and after, words of great importance for this Mystery. We have received these words from unwritten teaching… By what written authority do we do this, if not from secret and mystical tradition? …When the Apostles and Fathers established ordinances for the Church, they guarded the awful dignity of these mysteries with secrecy and silence from the beginning…” (De Spiritu Sancto, Ch. 27)
The sense of this holiness and original givenness of the Liturgy is so pronounced from the earliest days of the Church, that it gave rise to an entire theological discipline: mystagogia, whereby the Christian might approach the portal of the ritual signs and symbols to make trembling navigation, finding his way into a penetration of God’s own inner life, communicating itself through the Liturgy.
“For a church… is the dwelling of angels and archangels; it is the kingdom of God; it is heaven itself,” says St. John Chrysostom; and if all are called to contemplate the Beatific Vision, then the Liturgy is eminently suited to train us for this. For the entire Liturgy breathes out God’s mysteries, His eternal “atmosphere” as it were – wherein His salvific action throughout history, ever present to His eternal “now,” is re-presented to us in a rich lacework of candles and incense, chants and silence, bells and blessings, words and deeds. The Liturgy gives every man sufficient means to become a mystic.
Thus, it was not simply out of doctrinal defensiveness that the Council of Trent pronounced anathema on those who would dare contemn, omit, or change the traditional liturgical rites (cf. Sess. 7, Can. 13), but rather to guarantee their authenticity as effective means for God’s self-disclosure by remaining faithful to their origin and development, thus ensuring their mystical signification.
Pope Pius XII reminded the Church of this mystical signification and its necessary connection to Tradition in Mediator Dei (1947) at a time when Liturgy was increasingly being viewed in a rationalistic manner, as a mere “pastoral aid” among many, a set of devotional “add-ons” that might be shaped or jettisoned at will in order to better serve the purported “needs of modern man.”
Describing the liturgical cycle, the Pope’s words apply more broadly to recall the fact that Liturgy as a whole serves as the sacred access point to that divine activity which we have not created ourselves. We may conclude with his words:
“[Liturgy] is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ Himself who is ever living in His Church. Here He continues that journey of immense mercy which He lovingly began in His mortal life… These mysteries are ever present and active not in a vague and uncertain way as some modern writers hold, but in the way that Catholic doctrine teaches… they still influence us because each mystery brings its own special grace for our salvation… [Therefore] let us draw near to the High Priest that with Him we may share His life and sentiments and by Him penetrate even within the veil, and there honor the heavenly Father for ever and ever. Such is the nature and the object of the sacred liturgy…” (n. 165, 170-71)
 Joseph Card. Ratzinger, Introduction to Alcuin Reid’s The Organic Development of Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), p. 11.
 As Ratzinger himself recognized, this malformation has been due in no small part to the liturgical revolution that followed the Second Vatican Council, with its creation of a new rite of Mass: “In the place of the liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries and replaced it, as in a manufacturing process, with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.” “After the Second Vatican Council, the impression arose that the pope really could do anything in liturgical matters, especially if he were acting on the mandate of an ecumenical council. Eventually, the idea of the givenness of the liturgy, the fact that one cannot do with it what one will, faded from the public consciousness of the West.” Quotations are from Klaus Gamber’s La Reforme Liturgique en question (Editions Sainte-Madeleine, 1992, p. 7-8) and Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000, p. 165), respectively.
 Thomas Crean, The Mass and the Saints (Ignatius Press, 2009), p. 8. For another recent examination of this signification, cf. Fr. James Jackson’s Nothing Superfluous.
 The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 165, 168.
 “Mystic” being used here in the broad sense of one close to the Mystery and granted some measure of contemplative prayer in Christ, not necessarily the more restrictive sense of those to whom God grants special graces of union (e.g., transverberation, mystical marriage, etc.).
 Compelling evidence here is the memorandum offered to the Council of Trent by the eminent Dominican theologian John of Arze, who speaks of the composition of Liturgy as being “based as it was on deep and mystical reasons (haud obscura vestigia), and constituting a conspicuous monument of the most venerable antiquity.” (cf. Battifol’s 1898 History of the Roman Breviary, p. 246)*
*John’s further remarks seem almost to be written for our own time:
“Is it in this iron age, an age in love with the most dangerous novelties, when the ecclesiastical chant is mocked at, the canonical hours proscribed, the ceremonies of the Church despised, and her laws treated as mere human inventions… when even among ourselves, who adhere to the old Faith, we see disgust for the usages of the Church freely expressed, a growing contempt for holy things, a more and more widespread audacity in judging, each man for himself, of dogmas and canons: is this the time to give up our liturgical traditions and seem tacitly to allow that our adversaries are right, when our first duty is to stand firm, and the more the state of ruin manifests itself among them, the more on our part to exert ourselves to uphold the tottering edifice?” (Ibid., p. 247)