Symbolism and the Language of the Liturgy

In his conversations with the journalist Bill Moyers, the mythologist Joseph Campbell commented on the power of lived symbolism in communal life. When the judge comes out in a black robe, sits behind a high desk and calls the court to order with a gavel he is no longer an ordinary man. He is the law incarnate. He is justice. He is the authority.

A uniform and dress code are not merely utilitarian. The policeman, the soldier, the nurse, and even the waiter, the school child, or utility man wear the uniform for more than its function. The uniform temporarily suspends the personality. With it the individual conforms to the common good and the common goal. There is a practical symbolism involved.

When the monk or nun dons their habit they are doing the same, and the more extreme the habit the more extreme their submission to the rule. Likewise when the priest dons his vestments he is clothing himself in the vestiges of ancient religion. He is robing himself in romanitas, vesting himself in the persona of the priest and clothing himself as Christ the great high priest. We take this symbolism for granted; so much so that in our egalitarian age we misunderstand it and even dismiss it as an anachronism—a cultural curiosity akin to wearing lederhosen for the Oktoberfest.

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These uniforms—these vestments are the remnants of an older, more ritualistic and symbolic way not only of worship, but of viewing the world. The common man understood at a primitive and profound level that there was another plane of being and that the rituals of religion were intended to propel you out of the quotidian quagmire into a transcendent transposition into another realm. The signs, symbols, language, and liturgy were an ancient dance that lifted you beyond this bitter world to a better world.

Abandoning all that “mumbo jumbo hocus pocus priestcraft” we have all become American Protestants—even the Catholics. Worship has become utilitarian entertainment in which we gather in a large room to hear someone sing trite, sentimental ditties and listen to a pep talk about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony.

We have forgotten that religion is not about making the world a better place, but about going to a better place. All the old chthonic mysteries of the cave have been replaced by cheerful exhortations and enthusiasm for self-improvement and prosperity. The ancient commerce with the other world and the soul saving transactions with eternity have been relegated to the shelf with the books on ancient civilizations, anthropology and psychology. We know better now. We have outgrown that stuff. We are no longer in the dark ages.

Or are we? The ancient symbolism of myth and magic still thrives in the superhero movies, the fantasy novels and the popular stories of the supernatural. Indeed the supernatural and the superheroes are popular everywhere but in church—where ordinary people once did extraordinary business with the supernatural and learned to be those superheroes called saints.

Joseph Campbell left his boyhood Catholic faith because of his disgust and dismay at the iconoclastic reforms of his church after the Second Vatican Council. He understood the language of the liturgy was not only Latin, but a complex communication of symbols interplaying within the architecture, music, language, costumes, rites, gestures, and rituals of worship.

In The Power of Myth he lamented thus: “There’s been a reduction of ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, they’ve translated the Mass out of the ritual language and into a language with domestic associations. The Latin of the Mass was a language that threw you out of the field of domesticity. The altar was turned around so that the priest’s back was to you, and with him you addressed yourself outward. Now they’ve turned the altar around and it looks like Julia Child giving a cooking demonstration—all homey and cozy… They’ve forgotten that the function of ritual is to pitch you out not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time.”

This is why traditionalists in the Catholic Church insist on certain forms in worship. Whether they adopt the ancient Latin rite or not, they worship facing East and argue that the priest is not “turning his back to the people” but focusing with the people on the work of heaven which is the worship of God. They insist that beautiful clerical vestments are important. Their beauty hints of heaven. The priest does not wear brocade chasubles, lace albs, and opulent copes because he likes dressing up, but because he understands that the vestments provide a powerful contribution to the overall symbolism of worship. Along with the ceremonial actions, the ancient absurdity of incense, and the iconography of architecture and art, they help pitch him and the worshippers out of the ordinary world and into the other world.

Likewise, traditional Catholic priests take time to learn the precise gestures of worship. The way you walk, your posture, and your gesture matter because every part of the ritual contributes to the overall effect of transposing ordinary time and place into the extraordinary. Heightened, somewhat archaic and poetical language was used deliberately in the new translation of the Catholic Mass. The translators explain that a more lofty language is necessary to lift the worship from the mundane to the marvelous. Likewise, the music of the Mass is to be sacred. What this means precisely is the stuff of arcane debates among sacred music scholars, liturgists, and priests. While we may argue about what is included we know what should be excluded: the musical styles that are purloined from the Broadway musical, the rock concert, muzak, and the Grand Ole Opry.

What is accomplished when Christian worship is traditional in style? First, a living connection is made with the past. Pope Benedict spoke of the need for “a hermeneutic of continuity.” This is another way of expressing the conservative principle that the past should inform the present and illuminate the future. When an ordinary twenty-first century Catholic worships in a traditional style he or she is participating in a tradition that stretches not only to the first century but back into the Hebrew roots of Christianity.

Even more profoundly, they are participating in what I term myth for the masses. In addition to connecting with ancient Christianity and Judaism, they are also participating in the mythical mysticism of the ancient world. The interaction between gods and men, the themes of sacrifice and service, vulnerability and virginity, heroism and hedonism, love and life, nature and nurture—all these deep surges within the depths of the collective humanity are also present in a living and vital way as one experiences the rituals of religion practiced in a symbolic and liturgical way. Within the Catholic and Orthodox traditions we call these sacraments and sacramentals “the Holy Mysteries” for they connect us not only with the mysteries of our salvation, but also with those mysteries which in ancient times were the strange precursors of the events of Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem.

Does this matter in the modern world? It is my conviction that it matters more in the modern world than ever before because our fractured society is so vapid and disconnected from the great depths and awesome traditions of the human heart and human history. We may study the past in an academic forum. We may discuss psychology and be fascinated with myth and meaning. We may analyze anthropology and poke at prehistoric peoples with an eye to dissection, but in liturgy we participate in a profound way with the past. In liturgy we do not discuss the meaning of life. We experience the mystery of life.

Theologians explain that the Greek word anamnesis is the beating heart beneath the rituals of Catholic and Jewish religion. This is the concept that within the re-enactment of the Passover feast of the Catholic Mass a history changing event from the past is not simply remembered as one might view photographs of a family holiday. Instead the past event, through the ritual is brought into the present moment so that the participants share in the timeless event out of time. If you like, the “there and then” is brought into the “here and now.”

This is the heart of the practice of the Catholic religion and the heart of true conservatism—that the past is active in the present and the future. For believers this truth is not just believed, but lived. Through the symbolic language of liturgy we experience the reality of T.S. Eliot’s poignant and profound words, “Time present and time past, Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.”

Editor’s note: This column first appeared January 7, 2014  on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.


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