Lebrun (3): On the Literal Interpretation of Liturgy

Lebrun explains de Vert’s project and his criticism. (See Part 1, 2).


How the ceremonies ought to be explained

If an explanation of the prayers of the Mass is necessary, that of the actions and ceremonies is not less so. They are also signs that can express thoughts more vividly even than words, are are established for our edification, instruction, and keener attention. The ceremonies of the divine service must not be regarded as indifferent. Scripture teaches us that God attached particular graces to them. Moses prayed with his hands raised up toward heaven. This was a ceremony. And we know that God made the Jews’ victory depend on this elevation of his hands.[1] St. Paul, who often reminded Christians that they had been freed from the ceremonies of the Law, highly valued those of the Church, and saw no reason to change or omit them. He was content to say: “if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor the church of God”[2]. We must therefore apply ourselves to understand the true reason of every ceremony of the Mass. But it is not easy to discover them. Sometimes necessity, sometimes seemliness or convenience, and often symbolic and mystagogical reasons caused them to be established, and these reasons are rarely mentioned. One must seek them in scattered places. We cannot discover the true reason for some of them except by analogy with those for which we have found the true cause.

Defects of the authors who have given mystical explanations

For five or six centuries, several famous authors dedicated long works to the Mass. The works of Cardinal Lothar, who became Pope under the name Innocent III in 1198, and of Durandus, Bishop of Mende, both divided into six books, were copied a hundred times by later authors as the best thing available. But these authors, as able as they were in other matters, were not very well versed in antiquity, and did not have the time to complete the necessary research. They recognized this and even declared at the outset and conclusion of their works, and we sense on each page that they had reason to say it. Their genius is principally exercised in discovering and positing alleged mystical explanations in every place. Their allegories were within reach of the devotion of a great number of the faithful, but they they were never universally appreciated. For a long time many learned and experienced men have desired that what is mysterious should not be confused with what is not. But however edifying be the views that are presented in order to nourish the piety of the faithful, they must cede their place to the chief ideas that have been held by the Church. Whether it was necessity, convenience, or seemliness that was the first cause of the ceremony in question, that we must say; and then rise as high as possible to discover the spiritual reasons the Church has, so to speak, superimposed upon the reason of institution. The most recent ideas that propose themselves must come last in our consideration. The authors in question did not follow this order, and this is what renders their works less useful and obliges us to complete the researches that they have neglected.

M. de Vert’s project of literal explanation

We have understood better than ever in our century how much it is important to return to the origins of the usages of the Church. Certain authors have made various studies on the subject, but none has given us a reason to hope for a comprehensive work except Dom Claude de Vert. He proposed this study almost as soon as he was in a position to undertake it, and soon afterwards the world understood that he had certain ideas on this matter that differ from most authors. About this the [Protestant] Minister Jurieu wrote that “a learned man of the Order of Cluny is preparing a work that would surpass Durandus, Biel, Innocent, and all their disciples who have written on the Mysteries of the Mass, and prove that all the ceremonies are empty of mystery.” M. de Vert wisely distanced himself from this elegy in a letter to M. Jurieu himself, and in a few short, simple, and literal reflections, repudiated all the vapid pleasantries that the Minister had made about the ceremonies of the Mass. This letter was published at Paris in 1690. The public applauded it and conceived new hopes for the awaited work. M. de Vert was seemingly in a position to make it excellent. Already treasurer of the Abbey of Cluny, he had been made Visitor of the Order, which opened for him the most direct channels by which to become acquainted with the usages of the churches and discover their ancient monuments. The benefits he enjoyed gave him besides the means to provide for the expenses he would engage for these researches. What could not be expected from this author? Even after his two first volumes appeared in 1707 and 1708, more effort was given in praising them than examining them with care. And indeed the author’s intention to dispense with the imaginary reasons given by the pretended mystics, his efforts to discover literal reasons, and his accumulation of a great number of curious facts, unique practices and observations, which may at least serve as reminders for those who work on this material in the future, certainly merited praise. We give it without hesitation on those points that do not regard the faith. But readers give praise all the more easily since, when they are not experts in a subject, however learned they might be in others, they can be satisfied with probabilities that seem to be true. But when more attentive readers well-versed in ecclesiastical antiquity and experienced in studying the ancient sources have read the work with the proper caution against anything that might be imaginary, they have judged that M. de Vert has depended too much to the hypotheses of some moderns; that he too often relies on his own hypotheses; and that these conjectures, based on some practices of the High Middle Ages, have led him to construct a system that attributes only physical origins of convenience or necessity to all the ceremonies of the Church. It would have been necessary to warn him and explain his mistakes, which would undoubtedly have influenced his candor and sense of justice to rectify his system in the subsequent volumes he was supposed to write on the Mass. But sadly he died[3] just as I was on the point of writing to him. We can thus do nothing more than address ourselves to the readers who have too easily adopted his conjectures, and as we have proposed to explain to the faithful the origin and meaning of the prayers of the Mass and the authentic spirit of the Church in her ceremonies, we also feel ourselves obliged to show, in the work of M. de Vert, where these sort of hypotheses lead. The interest of the faithful should always be preferred to the consideration an individual might deserve, however good his intention might have been, and whatever respect we had for him. We turn first to the source of his project and his research.

M. de Vert’s system founded on a false supposition

“Having heard, more than thirty years ago, from a very intelligent man and besides well-versed in antiquity, that candles were not originally used in the Church for any other reason than for illumination, the idea struck me, and set me on the track of the natural and historic meaning of the ceremonies, and I understood at that moment that that all the other practices of the Church must also have had an original physical cause and reason for their institution. I thus set myself to investigate the causes and reasons [….] I have drawn my conclusions, formed my opinion, taken my side, and drawn up my system.” A bad start. Any man that begins with a system only looks for and discovers what he can favor his theory.

Why make a system to explain the ceremonies? There are some that have been introduced by necessity, others for convenience or seemliness, and a great number for mysterious reasons. Thus they cannot be reduced to only one cause. It pleased M. de Vert to craft a system, because at the outset he wanted them to have only physical reasons of convenience or necessity. He did not make his system after his researches, it was only after making it that he sought for or imagined what would justify it. From the moment he heard someone say that candles were not originally used in Church for any other reason than for illumination, his system was created for all the ceremonies. He understood at that moment THAT ALL THE OTHER PRACTICES OF THE CHURCH MUST ALSO HAVE HAD ORIGINAL PHYSICAL CAUSES. Following a system so conceived, every glimpse or hint that could support it would be admitted in whatever place he found it; and anything that appeared to contradict it, however ancient or respectable it might be, would be rejected as bad taste.

False origins of the use of candles

This was the project M. de Vert set up for himself. His first concern should have been to examine whether what he had been told about the origin of candles in the Church were true, whether the custom of lighting them at Mass during the day came from the fact that Mass was originally said in underground spaces, and thereafter by force of habit people continued to light them even in plain daylight, as he repeats so often in all his volumes. If he had begun with this question, he might have seen that the reflection that charmed him was false, that candles have been used in the Church from the beginning, just as they are today, as much as for simple illumination, as to mark the joy excited by the vigils of the great feasts, and to honor the relics of the saints and the tombs of the faithful; and that they were lit in plain daylight not at all because of custom but for mystagogical reasons. We have shown that in the 4th century until about 400 in every church in Europe, candles were not lit during the day time; and they began to be lit at the Gospel, and thence during the prayers of the consecration for nothing other than reasons that were purely symbolic and mystagogical.

On incense

Thus M. de Vert went astray from the start when he set out on the track. Was he more lucky on the road? Incense, according to him, was first employed in the Church to dispel bad odors, and that lit candles were given to the newly baptized to light their way to the fonts and the altar. On this point there would have been no need for study to discover the falsity of these pretended physical reasons. A little attention would have brought out its absurdity. Indeed, if incense was only burned to spread good odors in the church, it would have sufficed to have placed a box of perfume to accomplish this. The pontiff would not have been charged with incensing the altar himself in ceremony, as we see it is in the Apostolic Constitutions, in the Treatise on the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, and in St. Ambrose. It would not have been required to bless this incense, or, while offering it, to make these beautiful prayers that are read in the most ancient liturgies of Saint James and Saint Chrysostom,[4] and that the Greek Church recites to the present day.[5]

The candles of the newly baptized

If the newly baptized lit their candles only to guide their way from the fonts to the altar, why would they not light them going to the fonts in the first place, since it was already night? The priests, deacons, godparents, and other faithful who accompanied the newly baptized, would not they have the same reasons to light candles? But it is only the newly baptized who carry candles in their hands, and certainly not out of any need: for in this ancient solemnity there were such a great number of lights that the shadows of the night were changed into brilliant day. M. de Vert knew this, and that is why he says that candles were not lit during the Gospel, since the Deacon would have been able to see very clearly. Were these great candles sufficient for reading, but not for leading the way? M. de Vert would rather defend his side, than recognize, with the ancient Fathers, that the candles lit when leaving the fonts are a symbol that shows the newly baptized that through baptism they have just passed from the shadows to the light. M. de Vert refuses to put up with these mystical reasons. He even seems to refuse to grant mystagogical origins to the institution of the sacraments, as one can see in several places in his work.

The deceptive nature of the simple and literal sense

M. de Vert claims that his ideas introduce us to “the taste of learned men, who in every genre of science and literature always come back to the simple and the natural, and thus to the truth.” There is nothing more excellent than such taste, as long as it is retrained in within its just bounds, just as nothing is more pernicious than a taste that is ruined for not knowing how to restrain itself. We must acknowledge, to the glory and the shame of our century, that we have both conceived good taste, and so often spoiled it; that spirits otherwise capable of good things are given to deplorable excesses even while explaining the word of God. Origen and many ancient interpreters depended too much on allegory, enough to lead their so-called critics to dispense with them entirely. These latter have carried out their design so thoroughly, that it is no longer acceptable to find in Moses, the Prophets, and the other Holy Books, that which Jesus Christ revealed there to his disciples, and that which they later elaborated for the entire Church.[6] These pretended critics are all grammarians at best, whose works are pernicious to the faithful, and useful only to good theologians to help them understand the scope of certain terms. They are strangers in the Old and New Testament, hospites Testamentorum.[7] On the specious pretext of looking for the simple, literal, and historical sense, M. de Vert has allowed himself like them to be blinded, but also like them, he has allowed himself to be duped.

(to be continued….)

Any comments or criticisms on the translation are very welcome!


[1] Ex. 17:11.

[2] 1 Cor 11:16.

[3] At Abbeville, 1 May 1708.

[4] Euchol. Graec. p. 62.

[5] We have shown based on the testimony of the ancient Fathers that the use of incense was introduced in the Church for symbolic and mystagogical reasons.

[6] Illae sunt Scripturae quae testimonium perhibent de me…….De me enim ille Moises scripsit (John 5:39, 46). Incipiens a Moyse, et omnibus Prophetis, interpretabatur illis in omnibus Scripturis quae de ipso erant (Luke 24:27).

[7] Ephesians 2:12.


2 thoughts on “Lebrun (3): On the Literal Interpretation of Liturgy

  1. Thank you for posting this. If I understand it correctly, Lebrun is rightly seeking a mean between two extreme: an over-eager and arbitrary “allegorizing” approach to liturgical interpretation, such as one finds in Durandus on the one hand, and a bare literalist approach such as one finds in M. de Vert, on the other hand. I would be interested to see a treatise on the *principles of liturgical interpretation*, if one can speak of such a thing, that adequately enables one to distinguish between merely fantastical allegorical explanations and authentically and genuinely symbolic explanations. It seems there is indeed a difference, but I am not sure where to look for a clear and detailed delineation, according to strict and consistent principles.

    Jean Hani’s books on liturgical symbolism are a good place to start, but he doesn’t go too deeply into the principles, though I think his commentary would be a good example of the right principles put into practice. He is likewise critical of Durandus’ arbitrarily allegorical explanations, but also of the literalistic approach that excludes all symbolic meaning whatsoever.

    This is something which I am hoping to do some research on, eventually – that is, a philosophical account of the symbol, by which one can know what is real and what is merely arbitrary or fantastical.


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