Monday, April 17, 2023

A Compact Guidebook to the Allegorical Meaning of the Mass

The name of Fr. Claude Barthe is well known to lovers of the Latin liturgical heritage. Ordained in 1979 by Marcel Lefebvre and incardinated in 2005 into the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon in France, he has taught for the seminary of the Institute of the Good Shepherd and the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, and has published numerous liturgical studies and essays on current affairs (you can read some of his work at Res Novae). He also serves as chaplain of the annual Summorum Pontificum Pilgrimage in Rome. I had the pleasure of meeting him for the first time this past October in Rome.

Since that time, I was called upon to proofread the translation of one of his most important books: A Forest of Symbols: The Traditional Mass and Its Meaning, which has just been published by Angelico Press (it appeared in French all the way back in 2011). I've been happy to see it ranked for a week as the #1 bestseller at Amazon in the category of Christian Rites & Ceremonies, and now #1 and #4 in the category Catholicism (!). As well it should be: the book is masterful, packing so much depth into a handily short space.

So, what is the purpose of this book? How does it differ from, say, Fiedrowicz's introduction to the TLM (which is still my "go-to" recommedation for anyone seeking a deep dive into the TLM's history, form, and theology), or the recent detailed history of the Roman Rite by Fr. Lang, or my own defense of the unicity of the Roman Rite?

This book has one and only one central purpose: to explain, defend, and carry out the allegorical interpretation of the Mass. As Fr. Barthe points out, for over a thousand years, the Roman Mass was approached as a "forest of symbols," to use an evocative phrase from Baudelaire. Every part of the rite, every ceremony, down to the smallest sign of the cross or movement from left to right or incensation pattern, was eagerly mined for meaning. Yes, one might say these meanings were imposed, but one could also say they were discovered, elicited from the rite itself, due to the extreme ease or naturalness with which our forefathers saw spiritual meanings in all kinds of things, above all in Scripture. They extracted the full juice of the grape and allowed it to mature into rich wine.

So far from this being "eisegesis" (i.e., reading into something what can't possibly have been intended to be there), it is a form of spiritual exegesis based on the belief that God has communicated something of His infinite depth of truth, some revelation of Himself, into all that He has made or caused, including the liturgy that emerged from the centuries of faith. Yes, human authors and architects may not have been thinking of all that is present in their writings or their works, but God knows, and wills, deeper meanings than His human instruments can fathom. This is taken for granted in the ages of faith, and one who reads St. Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons on the Song of Songs or William Durandus's commentary on the Mass can readily see how fruitful this assumption is, discerning layer after layer of significance in what might have seemed purely functional or historically conditioned or even initially arbitrary.

Fr Claude Barthe
The back cover of this book expressly makes the connection between biblical literacy and liturgical literacy:
The Christian liturgy—and the Roman liturgy in particular—developed and thrived within a tradition of commentary and meditation that was fundamental for its understanding, running parallel with the same way of approaching Scripture. The rationalist influences that led to the decline and eventual rejection of the mystical or spiritual senses of Scripture in favor of a narrowly-conceived literal sense led to a narrowing of liturgy as well, which was reduced to its material parts and their various functions. While in recent decades the importance of the spiritual sense of Scripture has been reclaimed, its liturgical equivalent remains in shadow. The present book addresses this lacuna with an easy-to-understand summary of the traditional approach to the “forest of symbols” contained in the Roman Mass.
Reading it, I was struck once again by the transformation of mind that occurs when a person comes to appreciate the inner continuity and coherence of the Roman Rite (by which I mean, of course, the usus antiquior, the only Roman Rite there is). When you understand the Mass in each of its parts, down to the grainiest detail, you see that everything is in the right place: it all makes sense, fits together, and nourishes meditation. The sterility of the academic rationalism that rejected the allegorical approach was the necessary precondition for the violent dismantling and reconstruction of liturgy that took place in the twentieth century, much as the mechanistic assumptions of modern materialistic medicine are the precondition for sex changes, which treat organs like computer components.

There is so much wonderful material in this book that a review could easily go on for thousands of words. I will try, then, to quote just a few passages that give a taste of the whole, which consists of 150 pages of commentary followed by an appendix of the Order of Mass in Latin and English columns.

To skeptics, Fr Barthe makes the unanswerable rejoinder that
this spiritual commentary on the liturgy is already at work in the New Testament, particularly in the Apocalypse, but also in the Epistle to the Hebrews and in the Gospel according to St John. The Apocalypse itself proceeds in this way to complex mystical interpretations of cultic objects that will go on to serve as models for patristic and medieval authors: the seven lamps are the seven spirits of God (4:5); the gold cups full of perfume represent the prayers of the saints (5:8 and 8:3–4); and the fine linen with which the Spouse is clothed signifies the virtues of the saints (19:8). (p. 10)
The introduction is a marvelous compact history of the allegorical reading. He says, for example, concerning Amalarius of Metz (c. 780-850):
One of Amalarius’s principal ideas, which he acquired as part of an already well-established tradition and which became a key element in the spiritual interpretation of the Eucharistic sacrifice, is that there is a link between the unfolding of the Mass and the history of salvation: the Mass represents the mission of Jesus Christ, from the proclamation of his arrival on earth, to which the Introit corresponds, sung by the choir, who in their turn represent the choir of prophets who foretold Christ’s arrival, up to his Ascension, to which corresponds the Ite missa est, the dismissal of the faithful (we will return to this), with which those assisting at the Mass are dismissed just as Christ dismissed his apostles on the Mount of Olives. (14)
One of the finest fruits of this study is a revitalized appreciation of the normativity of the Solemn Mass, since the symbolism unfolded in the sources is very much keyed to the presence of all the ministers doing all that belongs to them:
The special characteristic of a solemn Mass is that it revolves
around the actions of three sacred ministers: the priest, the deacon, and the subdeacon, who all belong to the major orders. And the three of them, from one point of view, are simply one; and when a single bench without a back (called the sedilia) is available, they all sit on it together. This is because the three ministers of the solemn Mass all represent the same Jesus Christ in three different states: yesterday, today, and world without end.
       The subdeacon represents the Old Testament, Jesus Christ yesterday, who was proclaimed partly in the sayings of the prophets, and partly in figures by the saintly individuals who preceded his coming. As is appropriate, the subdeacon always occupies the lowest rank, that of incompleteness....
       The deacon represents the New Testament, Jesus Christ today, proclaimed in his fullness by the apostles and their successors, the bishops, who are the propagators of the Gospel....
       The celebrant himself is most fully identified with JesusChrist today and world without end, as he presently is and always will be, in glory in heaven. The celebrant is the instrument and the representative of Christ glorious and victorious, the Christ who makes himself really present on the altar in the elements of bread and wine in order to accomplish there his sacrifice for the remission of sins and to the glory of his Father. The priest who celebrates at the altar is the image of Jesus Christ priest and victim, but an unbloody victim in his heavenly state. (24-25)
Most astonishing to me was the discussion of the Offertory, which extends for several pages, and makes an ironclad defense of the sacrificial Offertory, so arrogantly rejected by the liturgical reformers, whose radical modification of the missal at just this point is among the most infamous and execrable of their acts of vandalism. I will quote some of it here, but can only urge the reader of this review to make haste in procuring a copy of Forest of Symbols.
Here we enter the Offertory, strictly speaking, a term that must be understood in the strong sense of a “sacrifice.” The oblations that will shortly be consecrated are brought to the altar and unveiled. All the Christian liturgies, in a spiritual pedagogy married to the very rhythm of the Incarnation—“when he cometh into the world, he saith: Sacrifice and oblation thou wouldest not: but a body thou hast fitted to me . . . . Then said I: Behold I come: in the head of the book it is written of me: that I should do thy will, O God” (Heb 10:5–7)—proceed to a sort of pre-consecration. At once, the liturgical sequence is upset: the Offertory anticipates the act that is going to reproduce the sacrifice of the Cross, just as Christ anticipated the offering of Passion. 
       Allegorically, this moment of the Mass therefore recalls those moments in Christ’s life in which more than elsewhere he offers himself in an anticipation of his Passion: the offering of Christ to the Father, as we have just seen, when he came into the world and entered the womb of Mary; the offering of Christ in the Temple, at the Presentation; and the offering during the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, which is recalled particularly when the priest invites the ministers to pray (Orate fratres . . . ), an invitation like that of Gethsemane (Lk 22:40), and when the priest prays in silence, recalling the solitary prayer of Christ on the Mount of Olives.
       At this point we must emphasize the traditional comparison of the Offertory of the Mass with the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Surely that Presentation was above all a liturgical action? This rite applied to firstborn males, forty days after their birth. It was when parents really repurchased their male firstborn, for whom in substitution they gave the animals offered in sacrifice. The rite reflected the preservation of the firstborn of the Hebrews during the tenth of the plagues of Egypt, and the sacrifice of Isaac demanded of Abraham his father. Firstborn male children and Abraham’s firstborn son are both figures of Christ, the sacrificed Son of God: figures that were not yet fully realized, since the firstborn of the Hebrews had been spared, as had Abraham’s only son. 
       By this act Jesus showed what he had come into the world to accomplish: his self-offering on the Cross and for eternity. He did this first on the altar and in the temple formed by the womb of his mother. He next demonstrated it on the day of the Presentation in the Temple at Jerusalem. He finally repeated it in the Garden of Gethsemane.... At the Presentation Mary offered her Son in advance as a sacrifice as she would one day have to offer him to God on Calvary, in the manner of a priest who, at the Mass, offers in advance the oblations that he is again going to offer (in the sacrificial sense of the word) at the consecration. Mary also lifted up Jesus in her hands to put him in the hands of Simeon, who represents the eternal Father, in the same way that the priest lifts up a little above the altar the host and the chalice that he offers. By this offering in the Temple, Jesus Christ was made ready to be offered in his entirety, in the same way that the oblations are prepared for the perfect offering that takes place at the consecration. (76-79)
The foregoing are characteristic examples of the insights Fr Barthe has gathered by his assudious labors in the vast treasury of the allegorists. We must be grateful to him, to his translator David Critchley, and to Angelico Press for adding yet another arrow to the quiver of traditionalist literature. How ironic it is that, at the very time when the Roman Rite is under renewed papal and episcopal attack, the traditional movement is producing a mighty literature on this rite's beauty, fittingness, and orthodoxy, compared with which the reform rite's current promotional literature is limp, untruthful, and uninspiring. Such a thought brings both comfort and assurance.

A Forest of Symbols may be obtained from any Amazon site as well as from Barnes & Noble.

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