I can recall being told by the sisters, back when I was in grammar school in the 1950s, that when the priest moved from the right side to the left side and back again in front of the altar, it symbolized the shuffling of Christ, during his passion, between the Roman and Jewish authorities. This and other such analogical interpretations of the ceremonial of the Mass arose from the very nature of the Mass as the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary. In the history of liturgy, what started out as functional gestures or movements gradually took on analogical or allegorical interpretations to help the clergy and laity understand the cosmic dimensions of what takes place in each and every Mass.
Then, in the 1970s and 80s, poorly instructed liturgists took matters into their own hands and told us that we had to give up such thinking, that we had to let go of such accretions added centuries after the Last Supper and the original worship practice of the very earliest Christians. They insisted that we return to the practices of the Christian house-churches which were, presumably, free of any real liturgical practices or symbolization.1 The Mass, they said, was simply a shared meal (the Eucharist) during which we recalled stories from our religious past (Old Testament and New Testament readings). We were to look at the Mass as something like the American Thanksgiving dinner at which family members feasted on a turkey and recited the same stories from previous Thanksgiving dinners, reacting to them as if they had heard them for the first time. It was at this point then that most Catholics were subjected to constant and experimental changes in the Mass because, of course, no one really knows how the earliest Christians in the house churches actually worshiped. The Mass became the plaything of liturgists and local liturgy committees resulting in bizarre practices that were probably not even remotely related to the earliest Christian liturgies.
Thankfully, we seem to be moving away from that kind of thing, mostly because of the writings, teachings and practices of Pope Benedict XVI. Even so, much of the analogical and allegorical richness that attended the traditional Latin Mass has been lost in the ceremonial of the new Mass, at least as it, in my experience, seems to be celebrated in American parishes today. Unless performed with reverence and solemnity the movements, gestures and prayers of the priest and other servers remain merely functional. It is nearly impossible to experience today’s informal approach to the Mass as anything more than merely coming together of the members of club or other group to trade stories and eat a barbeque.
Take, for example, the entrance rite. In most Masses celebrated in our churches today I would guess the entrance rite has become a “gathering rite”. ”Gathering” is a significant concept to liberal liturgists with its emphasis on ‘community’ and is something akin to members of the extended family gradually showing up for Thanksgiving dinner.
Yet, the entrance rite of the old traditional Latin Mass had several analogical interpretations2 that did indeed call to mind the whole mystery of our salvation (the cosmic implications of what was happening). In one interpretation the entrance rite was likened to the first coming of Christ into the world through the Incarnation. Everyone understood that the priest represented Christ; the priest as alter Christus who emerges from the sacristy, coming forth from his Father in heaven and from the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to enter the world “as a bridegroom coming out of his bride chamber” (Ps 18:6). The priest was vested as Christ was vested in the flesh of our humanity. Acting in the person of Christ he approached the altar to offer the new sacrifice of the new covenant in the Mass. Not today! “Let us stand and welcome Father so and so”; I’m sure most of us have heard that at one time or another. At the very most we experience the entrance rite today as just a functional start to the affair. In fact, in most parishes I would guess, the priest carries a hymnal and joins in the singing with the congregation, thus shedding his role in persona Christi. The priest is just another member of the group who serves as a temporary leader.3
We could list and describe numerous examples of lost analogical or allegorical interpretations in the new order of the Mass as commonly celebrated, today.4 Such loss has eliminated the contemplative and meditative aspect of liturgy that conveyed a deeper understanding and experience for people.
1 A rather foolish assumption considering how the Jews at the time of Jesus were a liturgically rich society in both their public and domestic rituals. But then, according to the liberal liturgists, Jesus was a social activist and would be anti-ritual, anyway.
2 There have been many interpretations proffered over the centuries for this or that aspect of the vestments, furnishings, gestures and movements of the liturgy, but none, as far as I know, are ‘official’.
3 This is, of course, exactly what liberal liturgists want us to believe, that the priest is not special in any sense –the “priesthood of all believers” thing.
4 For another example: The standing at the right side of the altar by the celebrant in the early part of the Mass, up to the reading of the epistle, was seen as representative of Christ coming first to the Jews before the pagan Gentiles. In the new order of Mass the priest never moves from the center of the altar, eliminating any need for an analogical explanation that would deepen the contemplative experience for the congregation.