Lebrun (4): On the Interpretation of Liturgical Symbols

Wherein Lebrun explains his own method of liturgical commentary. (See Part 1, 2, 3, or download the entire Preface here.)


What the literal sense is

The true literal and historical sense of a writing or a ceremony is that which the author or institutor had in mind, and it is often a figurative sense, one of symbol and of mystery. If we consider the scepter of kings and the crosier of bishops and abbots in a coarse and material fashion, we might say that it is given to them for support while walking, because this is the more ordinary use of staves[1] and because in fact in ancient times bishops and abbots availed themselves of staves in their travels. But since we are seeking the reason for the institution of the ceremony of the pastoral staff, we would distance ourselves from the true sense of the Church if we gave, as a reason of institution, the ordinary usage of support while walking; for the scepter and the crosier are given to both young and old to be used only in actions of magnificence and ceremony. The proper and historical significance of the scepter is to be the symbol of the power of the king in all his dominions, just as the pastoral staff is given by the Church to bishops and abbots to indicate their authority in their dioceses and in their monasteries,[2] and because as pastors they have the crook to protect their flock and to chastise those who trouble its peace and good order. The Church herself teaches us these symbolic senses in her pontificals.

A flawed principle of action drawn from the sound of words

If the false origin of the usage of candles in daytime and a misunderstanding of the proper and literal sense sense led M. de Vert astray, he was no more felicitous in the principle he set himself for finding the physical causes of the actions of the priest and his assistants that are ordinarily joined to words. He might have attributed these actions to the movements that sentiments of a lively and intelligent piety produced. But that would have been moral and mystical, so against his design. He thus had to find those whose whose sound alone was the physical cause of these actions.

He applied himself to this goal in the first volume. The whole second volume, divided into only two chapters, trots out similar attempts. He stuffs it with a confused melange of practices that are holy and respectable alongside usages that are little known, introduced without good cause, and which should be abolished. He informs us that at Abbeville, and in two other places, the chanters act fearful when they sing robustos Moab obtinuit tremor, and that at Péronne the chanter, on Christmas day, at the antiphon De fructu, presents a basket of fruits to the deacon and the sub-chanter. The common practices of the Church are not susceptible to this kind of interpretation, but M. de Vert does not hesitate to attribute them to his pretended physical causes.

If we genuflect at the words of the Credo: Et incarnatus est, that is because a little before we say descendit. “It is quite easy to perceive,” M. de Vert says, “that this ceremony is nothing more than the effect of the impression of the sound and the letter of the word descendit, for genuflection is a sort of descending.”[*] And if in many churches the genuflection is maintained until the word sepultus has been said, do not think that this comes from the desire to adore through this posture of voluntary abasement the humiliations of the incarnate Word. No! It is because we are waiting for a word that tells us us rise, and this word is resurrexit, “for,” he adds in a note, “RESURGERE in its proper sense signifies to rise, to stand erect.” Who else but M. de Vert would be able to divine that this word descendit, pronounced on another occasion, was the cause of the unction and the consecration of the bishop’s hands: “At these other words,” he says, “employed similarly in the same ceremony—unguentum in capite, quod descendit in barbam, barbam Aaron, quod descendit in oram vestimenti eius—his hands are anointed, apparently because of the word descendit, which signalled the actual ‘descent’ and pouring out on the hands of the oil first placed on the head.”

At the place in the Passion when Christ’s death is told, do the Christian people prostrate themselves on the earth in order to adore in the humblest manner possible this precious death that Jesus Christ has suffered for our sins? M. de Vert sees nothing in this ceremony but the attempt to represent a man expiring: “We lay ourselves on the ground,” he says, “and bow our heads in the manner of one expiring and giving up the soul and falling down dead. What’s more,” he adds, “in the Roman Rite a pause is observed here, as if to express, perhaps, the repose of the dead, which is to say, the state of human bodies after death.”

In the High Middle Ages we find several Missals full of certain puerile rubrics, because they were created in coarse times, and M. de Vert, who had read a great number of these rubrics, believed he had to include them in his own work, and he very carefully reports the minute practices of the places he has visited, but he has never once actually found an explanation such as the one above.[3] Really now, should we instruct the faithful to act out what the words so clearly say, and so make their assembly nothing but a company of bad actors?

The true cause of gestures

M. de Vert should have known what good authors have observed,[4] that gestures are made to express sentiments that suffuse the soul at any given time, and not to mimic or act out to spectators everything that the words might signify. M. the Bishop of Soissons hit on the true reason for liturgical gestures according to the sentiments of the Church when he said: “It is the faith, a lively faith that inspires me to prostrate myself before the altars of my God. It is not the bare sound of these words supplex or supplci or adorare or descendit, etc., that make me do it, as M. de Vert would have it. It is solely the desire to show to God by this humiliating posture the humiliation of my heart. It is a lively faith that inspires me to raise my hands and my eyes toward heaven while praying, not only to express through these gestures the sense of the words of my prayer, as M. de Vert says,[5] but to express the liveliness of my desires, which rise toward God, as St. Augustine said,[6] and to excite myself thereby to groan with greater fervor and pray more fruitfully.”[7]

Novel notions about banning mysticism entirely

M. de Vert, in order to banish everything that smacks of mysticism, is obliged to find other reasons besides what he finds in the impression made by the sound of words. St. Benedict, in the 6th century, tells us that the Gloria Patri was said standing to note the honor due to the Holy Trinity to whose praise this versicle is dedicated. M. de Vert observes that at the end of each Nocturn the choir, which had been sitting, rises at the last response when the Gloria Patri is said, and has another perspective than that proposed by St. Benedict: “We stand,” he says, “as if to leave the choir,” because formerly one departed at the end of every Nocturne. What can we expect from an author who is only looking for causes like this? In the last two volumes that appeared in 1713, he comments on the rubrics in detail, accompanying them with short discussions about the more difficult passages. In this he sometimes appears to be more equitable toward that which is evidently mystagogical, but it is also true that he continues to put forward reasons that are entirely the product of his fantasy. He still spares no effort to exclude any other cause for the actions of the priest than the sound of the worlds he pronounces! When the priest ends the collects, does he join his hands according to the usual custom throughout the whole world, to ask for some grace with earnestness? M. de Vert finds no other reason for this gesture than the words in unitate: “Whether he joins his hands at the Per Dominum or at in unitate, it is always in consequence of these last words that he makes this movement, in order to express the words.” Again, he pretends to have found the better physical reason for it when the priest says Per eundem: “The priest joins his hands at this moment, as if to make one thing out of two, making one joined hand, because of the eumdem.”

The mistaken origin of the elevation of the Host

When discussing developments in ceremonial, M. de Vert is satisfied with his usual manner of conjecture, instead of seeking the true historical reasons. He knows that the elevation of the Host began in the twelfth century. What is the origin of this new ceremony? Here it is, according to him: “Since it was necessary for the priest, taking the Host in his hands at the accepit panem and the accipite, to elevate it just a little, as we observe in rubric 27, n. 1, it happened that imperceptibly priests began to elevate it so much, especially after the consecration, when they wanted to adore It, that finally, seen and noticed by the servers who did not fail to render homage to It and worship It, around the beginning of the twelfth century this elevation started to become solemn.” There you have a pretty slow physical explanation. Did a thousand years need to pass for the Host to be elevated thus, little by little, such that It could be perceived by all the servers? What is more: Is it that hard to see that in the eleventh century Berengar impugned the real presence, and that after his penance and death in 1088, many saintly characters introduced various uses to lead the faithful to publicly acknowledge the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, in a show of contempt for Berengar’s heresy, and that this is the origin of the elevation of the Host? But M. de Vert is neither aware of nor investigates this kind of origin.

Infidelity to the facts

What is most annoying for those of us who work in this field is that one cannot trust what he reports about the books he has read. It seems that he was blind to whatever did not fit with his conjectures or his system. From the fact that the Carthusians and the Dominicans do not say the psalm Judica me Deus at the beginning of the Mass, he infers that the recitation of this psalm is very recent. “The Church of Rome,” he says, “has deemed it appropriate to admit it only after about two centuries. It is still not mentioned in the Ordo Romanus of the 14th century.”[8] He repeats this again in the fourth volume: “Until then,” he says, “as we see, there is still no trace of the Judica.”[9] Nevertheless, in addition to the ancient manuscripts we have cited, the Judica has been for the past six or seven hundred years mentioned by many well-known authors, such as the Micrologus, Innocent III, Durandus, etc. And could it have been more clearly marked than it is in the Ordo Romanus of the 14th century, where M. de Vert failed to find it? These are the words of that Ordo: “The Pope, clad in his pontifical vestments, says, before the altar, Introibo ad Altare Dei; one responds, Ad Deum, etc., after which he behinds the psalm Judica, which he says with his assistants.”[10] It is this kind of untrustworthy assertion, which is all too frequent in the work, which has obliged me for the sake of my readers to highlight some of them,[11] even if I had no intention to speak about M. de Vert. I have to say that his infidelities have truly bothered me, because they have prevented me from profiting from his research. He names many old Church books, and unfortunately it is necessary to re-read everything he cites, and do much more research than he did to avoid stumbling about, and reach a just middle ground between him and the pretended mystics.

What must be done to avoid the defects of the pretended mystics and of the pretended men of letters

In order to avoid the defects of both these camps, first, one must not to lose sight of the nature of the question, which consists in finding the origin of the ceremonies and not the origin of things the Church uses in the ceremonies. For example, if I am asked for what reason the Pope gives a red hat to cardinals, it would be facetious to respond that it is to cover his head, because I was not asked why the cardinals wear a zucchetto, a biretta, or a hat, but why they wear a red one. It is the origin of this color, proper to cardinals, that we are looking for, and not the origin of birettas and hats. This is what M. de Vert never fails to miss, and it makes him give so many poor explanations of the sacraments and of the most holy ceremonies. The whole world knows that the purpose of washing hands and the entire body is to clean ourselves, but if we are asked whences comes it that water is the matter for the sacrament of Baptism, why water is poured on the head of the baptised, or why he is plunged into the water, it would be a very poor response indeed to say that it was originally to wash the body, because baptism is not done, as St. Peter says, “to put away the filth of the flesh”[12]; and St. Augustine teaches us that those who are to be baptized on Holy Saturday bathed on Maundy Thursday so as not to bring their bodies filthy to the baptismal fonts. The origin of baptism is thus neither in the need to wash the body, nor, as M. de Vert would have it, the use of certain people who washed their infants after their birth, and through superstition carried them to a river to do so. The origin of Baptism is purely symbolic, which is to say that the water, which is an element very suited to washing all manner of things, is employed to show that when it touches the body, God purifies the soul of all its blemishes.

Secondly, we must discover as much as possible the time and place when each ceremony began. This was something always neglected by the mystics and often by M. de Vert. Cardinal Lothar (Innocent III), supposing that there had always been, as there are now, 25 signs of the cross in the Canon, considers that this number is employed by “five times five, which always returns to itself when it is multiplied ad infinitum, for however much the Sacrament of the Eucharist is multiplied it always remains the same sacrifice.”[13] The cardinal might have seen that even in his day  , in various churches and among the Carthusians there were not 25 signs of the cross, that 150 years before him the Host and Chalice were raised at the words per ipsum, etc, in place of the five signs of the cross made in this place thereafter, and that thus the relation between these 25 signs of the cross and the Eucharist is a relation he has imagined and had never been taught by the Church.

Thirdly, we must look in the contemporary authors and the prayers of the most ancient books of the Church for the ideas they had of these ceremonies, for it is these prayers themselves that reveal their own spirit and true sense.

Fourthly, we must not to create a system, in order to lay out what we find with more fidelity, and not to let our imaginations run wild.

Fifthly, we propose as our model of investigation that we should take, as the true explanations of the Church, the ceremonies where these reasons, of whatever sort they may be, render themselves, so to speak, manifest: for there have been many sorts. Several examples will serve to illustrate this clearly.

Example of discerning the various causes of ceremonies

  1. There are some usages that have no other cause than seemliness and convenience. We need look no further for the reason why the Missal is not left on the altar on the Epistle side during the Offertory other than that this side must be left free for everything required for the Oblation. Similarly, we cover the chalice for precaution, and not for any mystagogical reason, for fear that something might fall in it. If the Micrologus, which recognizes this reason, adds several other mystagogical reasons,[14] these are accretions at root, rather than the Church’s own sense.
  2. There are those which have a double cause: one of convenience and another of mystery. The first reason of the cincture put around the alb is to prevent it from flying about and trailing on the ground, and this physical reason does not prevent the Church, by means of the prayers that she makes priests say, from taking the cincture as a symbol of purity, since St. Peter commanded us to put on a spiritual cincture: succincti lumbos mentis vestrae, etc.[15] Further, it is of course true that the fraction of the Host is made to imitate Jesus Christ who broke the bread, and because it must be distributed. This has not stopped various churches from adding spiritual interpretations of this fraction, dividing the Host into three, four, or nine parts.[16]
  3. Sometimes when a physical cause of convenience or seemliness has ceased, a symbolic reason has been added [[cite Taft]] with the result that the practice is preserved. The maniple was originally only a handkerchief for the convenience of those who worked in the church and needed to clean themselves. After six or seven centuries, it no longer served this use, but the Church continues to employ it to remind her ministers that they must work and suffer to merit their recompense.[17]
  4. Sometimes a use established for a reason of convenience was changed for a mystagogical reason. Until about the end of the 9th century, the deacon chanting the Gospel faced south, towards the men’s side, because it was more fitting to announce the holy word to them than to the women who were placed on the opposite side. But since the end of the 9th century in the churches of France and Germany, the deacon has turned to the north for a purely spiritual reason, which is explained on pages 199 and 200.
  5. We also see that a reason of propriety has displaced a practice that had been introduced as a symbol of interior purity. In the Greek Church the priest washes his hands at the beginning of the Mass, and in the Latin Church too he once washed them before the Oblation, something bishops, the Canons of Arras, and the Carthusians still observe. Now this use had been established, according to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, “not because of need, since he washed on entering the church, but to point out the interior purity that is fitting to the holy Mysteries.”[18] Later, according to Amalarius[19] and the sixth Roman Ordo according to the use in the churches of France, the bishop or priest washed his hands between the Offertory of the faithful and the oblation at the altar, in order to purify his hands, which could have been dirtied by touching the bread brought by the laity. And since according to the same Ordo the incensation of the oblations followed, the ablution of the fingers was finally placed after this incensation in view of a greater propriety, but without abandoning the primitive spiritual reason, which joined a prayer to this ablution.[20]
  6. There are some uses that have never had anything but symbolic and mystagogical reasons. Some persons doubt that this has been the case from their origin, but it will be easy to persuade them, if we consider that the first Christians always had in view the raising of the mind to God; that everything that passed through their hands became, so to speak, symbolic; and that, as the sacraments were instituted under the form of symbols, they were inclined always to spiritualize everything. This is easy to see in the Epistles of St. Paul, in the writings of St. Barnabas, St. Clement, St. Justine, Tertullian, Origen, etc. The ancient author of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy writing under the name of St. Dionysius, even tells us that the symbolic reasons for the ceremonies were kept in secret, and that only the heads of the Church knew them and revealed them to the people on certain occasions.


St. Paul gives nothing but mystagogical reasons for the practice of praying with heads uncovered which men must observe in church, and the Fathers of the Church who explain the words of St. Paul also give nothing but mystagogical reasons for this use. It is also for a mystagogical reason that throughout many centuries the newly baptized were vested in a white robe, and that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, dressed his bed and chamber in white after having received Baptism during the illness of which he died. When the first Christians turned toward the sun as they raised their prayer, it is because they regarded the orient as the figure of Jesus Christ; and when they went to pray in places that were elevated and well lit whenever that was possible, it is because the exterior light represented the light of the Holy Spirit, as Tertullian teaches us.[21] All the ceremonies that precede the Baptism are also mystagogical symbols. St. Ambrose, who explains them in the book of the Initiated or on the mysteries, said that catechumens were turned toward the west to signify that they renounce the works of Satan and resist him to the face, and they then turns toward the East as if to look upon Jesus Christ, the true light.

Nothing is more commended in the first four centuries than praying standing on Sundays and the whole of Paschaltide. Tertullian says that it was a kind of crime to pray on one’s knees at these times, as well as to fast.[22] The first general Council made this law in the 25th canon. St. Jerome and St. Augustine, independently of this canon, which they were long unaware of, always spoke of this usage with great veneration. It was a tradition that had the force of law, according to St. Jerome;[23] and St. Augustine doubted only if it was observed everywhere on earth. St. Hilary and many other ancient doctors believed that this custom came from the apostles. Now, all these doctors, as well as St. Basil, St. Ambrose, Council canons, and all the ancient documents, only give mystagogical reasons for this practice; and indeed what other reason can one give, except that the faithful wished to honour the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and manifest their hope to participate in His resurrection and ascension by by the elevation of their bodies.

It is therefore to distance oneself from the spirit and views of the first doctors of the Church, and to waste one’s time, to spend one’s efforts in rejecting all mystagogical origins. On the contrary, the Church wants her children to dedicate themselves to investigating the mysteries that the ceremonies contain. We find in the ancient sacramentaries this collect said every year for the blessing of palms: “Grant, we beseech thee, that the devout hearts of thy faithful may savingly understand the mystical meaning of that ceremony”, and it is for this reason that the councils ordered priests to learn what is mysterious in the ceremonies and explain it to the people.

The necessity of a work that strikes the right balance

When we consider the spirit of the Apostles, of the first Christians, of the prayers of the Church, and the decrees of the councils, is it possible to find nothing but crude meanings in all the usages of the Church, and to regard the mystagogical reasons as so many arbitrary interpretations of the over-pious with which the Church has nothing to do? Without a doubt that is a more unhappy extreme than that of the pretended mystics, and which demands, in these times more than ever, a work that strikes a just balance. And this is what has caused me to quit all my other work to try to give an exact explanation of all the prayers and all the ceremonies of the Mass that in all our churches occupy the better part of each day.

Besides the research that such a work demands, it has been necessary to make sure that it is within reach of all people, and to make it neither too short nor too long. For this reason we believed that it was fitting to begin with an explanation of all the prayers and an appreciation of the origin and reasons of the ceremonies, which would satisfy the greatest number of people. This is the work of the first volume.

There is no Rite of the Latin Church as in the Greek Church. Since time immemorial the Greeks have held exactly to the liturgy of St. Chrysostom for the entire year, and to that of St. Basil for a few solemn feasts, but among the Latin Churches, from the 4th century to our day there have been so many varieties that it were not possible to note their origins without studying all the monuments of the churches. The travels I have made have been very useful to me, but it was not possible to go everywhere, and I cannot sufficiently praise the zeal and generosity of the great number of persons who have sent me documents, of which I will make mention, as is due, in the Bibliothèque Liturgique.


[The Preface is followed by approbations from the bishops of Auxerre, Fréjus, Senez, and Condom; the Superior General of the Oratory; several doctors of the Sorbonne; and the permission of the Archbishop of Paris.]

Any comments or criticisms on the translation are very welcome.

[1] The sceptre was often a very long stave. Charlemagne’s was seven feet tall, according to Einhard, and the monk of St. Gall says that Charlemagne complained about a bishop whom he had left with the Queen, who wanted to make use of this sceptre in place of the pastoral staff: Sceptrum nostrum, quod pro significatione regiminis nostri, aureum ferre solemnus, pro pastorali baculo, nobis ignorantibus, sibi vindicare voluisset. L. 1 c. 19.

[2] St. Isidore of Seville, around the year 600, speaks thus about the baton given to bishops at their consecration: Huic autem, dum consecratur, datur baculus, ut eius indicio subditam plebem vel regat, vel corrigat, vel infirmitates infirmorum sustineat (Isid. de Eccl. Offic. l. 2 c.5)

[3] It is not that M. de Vert wanted to absolutely exclude reasons of piety, in order to substitute his own ideas: “God preserve me,” he says, “from every condemning either the mystics or mystagogical reasons….” He adds that he is only searching, quaero, non affirmo (Pref. tom. 1 p. xliv et xiv). But as for the work itself and especially its title, they give another idea. To avoid embarrassing his reader, he ought to have called the book Conjectures sur les Ceremonies, and not Explication litterale et historique.

[4] See the poetry of Julius Caesar Scaliger.

[5] Tom 2. p. 147.

[6] Omnes genua figunt, extendunt manus, vel prosternuntur solo, hoc magis se ipsum excitat homo ad orandum, gemendumque humilius atque ferventius (St. Aug. lib. de cura pro mort. c. 5).

[7] Refut. de M. de Vert, p. 177.

[8] Tom. 3, p. 19.

[9] Tom. 4. p. 3

[10] Ordo Romanus XIV n. 71, p. 329

[11] Page 201, 497, etc

[12] Non carnis depositio sordium (1 Petr. 3:21).

[13] Simul omnibus quinques quinque, quae sunt simul viginti quinque: qui numerus per se ductus semper in seipsum reducitur, si ducatur in infinitum. quantum libet enim multiplicetur Eucharistiae Sacramentum semper est idem Sacrificium. (v. 5. c. 11)

[14] Huc usque Calix pro cautela coopertus videbatur, deinceps autem magis pro mysterio coperitur, etc. Microl. c. 17.

[15] 2 Peter 1:13.

[16] Respectively, the churches of Italy and France, of the Greeks, and in the Mozarabic rite.

[17] Ut recipiam mercedem laboris

[18] Cathec. 5. Myst.

[19] Amal. de Eccles. Offic. vol. 3, c. 19

[20] Pontifex vero, postquam thuribulum Diacono reddiderit, potest ad maiorem munditiam abluere digitos suos (Ord. Rom. XIV, p. 303).

[21] Nostrae columbae etiam domus simplex in editis semper et apertis, et ad lucem amat figuram Spiritus sancti, Orientem Christi figuram (Tert. lib. advers. Valent. c. 3).

[22] Die Dominico jejunium nefas ducimus vel de geniculis adorare (Lib. de cor. mil. c. 3)

[23] Multa quae per traditionem in Ecclesiis observantur auctoritatem sibi scriptae legis usurpaverunt, velut die Dom. et per omnem Pent. non de geniculis adorare (Contra Lucif. et Prolog. in Epist. ad Ephes.).

[*] Ed. note– Jungmann mentions this claim in a footnote (Missarum Solemnia, vol. 1, pg 108) to his discussion of the medieval allegorical method and its influence on liturgical praxis. The whole discussion in this chapter (“The Gothic Period”) is worth reading, as it has become the consensus opinion, for good or ill, about the allegorical tradition :

“Ceremonies of this sort of imitative symbolism were developed in great number, as is well known. And they often turned into something quite playful, as (for instance) when the boy-abbot in the monastery schools on the Feast of Holy Innocents (Dec. 28) at Vespers, when the words deposuit potentes de sede were sung, was summarily shoved from his chair. The same dramatic instinct was at work here which produced the mystery plays.

Cl. de Vert, Explication simple litterale et historique des ceremonies (Paris, 1706-1708), wanted to use this imitative symbolism of the late Middle Ages as the main principle for the explanation of the ceremonies.”

One thought on “Lebrun (4): On the Interpretation of Liturgical Symbols

  1. I’ve always wondered why the elevations of the consecrated host and chalice came to be where they are, overshadowing the elevation at the end of the Canon which, IIRC, was the original elevation.


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