Monday, November 17, 2014

On Some Ceremonies in Particular

Third in a series treating the Symbolism of the Traditional Form of Holy Mass

Fr. François Xavier Schouppe, S.J.

Some ceremonies are common to a great extent and are repeated according to circumstances. Among ceremonies of this kind are the frequent use of the sign of the cross, genuflections, inclinations of the head, the raising of the eyes, the raising and joining of the hands, the extension of the hands, the turns and salutations to the people, and, so to speak, the dialogues of the people, the varied changes of place, incensing, kissing the altar, the raising and lowering of the voice and silence.

His Eminence Cardinal Burke with head bowed, hands joined in prayer

The Sign of the Cross

After the manner of a blessing, the priest makes the sign of the cross with his right hand, on himself, on the missal, on the incense and the offerings. He makes the sign of the cross even over the consecrated Host and Chalice; but in this case the sign of the cross differs from the benediction properly so called.

The sign of the cross is used, first, as the sign and source of the blessing and the grace of God, because the cross is the chief instrument of the passion and the death of Christ and is therefore rightly considered to be the source and the fountain of every blessing. It is used, second, to commemorate the death of Christ in whose memory the Holy Sacrifice is daily offered. Since the cross most fittingly represents the passion and death of Christ, it becomes, by its frequent repetition, impressed on the minds of both priest and people that the sacrifice of the altar is the same as the sacrifice of the cross, for in the consecrated host there is, verily, the same body of Christ which was nailed to the cross and in the chalice the same blood which was spilt on Calvary.

It should be observed that at times the sign of the cross is made only once, then again twice, three times and finally five times. These acts have many mystical meanings. When the sign of the cross is made once, it signifies the unity of the divine essence, or the unity of person in Christ. When it is made twice, it signifies the two natures in Christ, the human and divine. When it is made three times, it signifies the trinity of persons in God - Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And when it is made five times, it is to remind us of the five wounds inflicted on the body of the Lord.


The genuflection is an external act of reverence, adoration, humility and submission paid to the divine majesty. By its use, the Church intends to manifest that honor which is due to the divine majesty, not only in words, but also in acts; not only internally, but even externally. in this action, the whole man combines to honor the Creator. It is also intended as a sign and incentive to that interior reverence and humiliation which the creature owes to the Creator.

Bowing the Head

The bowing of the head is an external act of reverence and submission. In character it is not so solemn an act as the genuflection. The bow is more or less profound, according as the words and circumstance demand. Thus, all that belongs to this supreme act of worship is carried out in the most perfect manner.

Lifting the Eyes

The lifting of the eyes to heaven is done, first, in imitation of Christ who, when praying to His heavenly Father frequently and more especially at the Last Supper, deigned to lift up His eyes; second, because it is natural to raise the eyes when we address any one; and third, that the mind and internal intention may be directed to God through the external elevation of the eyes. "To Thee have I lifted up my eyes, who dwellest in heaven." (Ps. 122:1)

Raising and Joining the Hands

The hands are held elevated when praying, first, because it is proper for the suppliant to extend his hands to those from whom he expects help; second, because the Psalmist advises this act: "Lift up your hands to the holy places and bless ye the Lord!" (Ps. 133:2); third, because Moses prayed in this manner for the people who were fighting the battles of the Lord; fourth, because Christ on the cross prayed with extended arms; and finally, that the raising of the hands may be an indication and help to the elevation of the heart.

The hands are raised and joined in the form of a circle when the priest recites the Gloria in Excelsis, the Credo, the Veni sanctificator, the Te igitur, the Memento, and the Benedicat. This is the natural posture which man assumes in the act of exultation, praise and supplication. The priest adopts this posture so that he may show that he magnifies God with all his heart, and he signifies, too, that with all his heart he believes in God and seeks divine aid and all benedictions which he desires to pour forth on the oblations, on himself, on the bystanders, and on all the other faithful, whether living or dead.

Extending the Hands

The priest extends his hands and immediately joins them when he says Dominus vobiscum, Orate fratres, or Oremus, first, so that he may salute the people, not only by his turning to and addressing them, but with a gesture also; second, that he may express the sincere and ardent affection of his heart by which he calls down benedictions on the people and excites them to prayer.

Turning to the People

The priest frequently turns to the people saying, Dominus vobiscum or Orate fratres, or he speaks to the people, who answer through the server: first, to signify the union between the priest and the people, who, to gather as one family of Christ, offer the sacrifice; second, that with fraternal charity and mutual prayers and exhortations they may help each other; third, that we may comprehend how the people are united with Christ, the invisible priest, as they are with the priest at the altar. Seven times the people are sainted with the pious address Dominus vobiscum, "the Lord be with you," in order to signify how great a need we have of the help of God, and also to indicate the seven-fold gifts of the Holy Ghost.

Changes of Place

These are made, first, because various ceremonies, such as the confession at the foot of the altar, lessons, ablutions, etc., naturally require these movements; second, to signify the various journeys of the Lord, especially during the time of His passion; third, to remind us that we are travelers here below, and that, through all the vicissitudes of life's journey, we may rely upon Christ to conduct us safely to the haven of eternal rest. Under this head also may be considered the transferring of the book, which was formerly made and which, to this day to some extent is continued, for the convenience of the celebrant and the reason of the movements by which now and again another part of the altar is occupied. Besides these, there are some mystical meanings which will be explained in future essays.


Incensing is done, first, as a mark of honor and adoration; second, as symbolic of the holocaust of Christ and all Christians which ascend by the fire of charity in the odor of sweetness; third, as an indication of the good odor of Christ diffused in His Church and throughout the universe; fourth, as representing the prayers of the saints on earth and in heaven, which ascend from hearts inflamed with love to the throne of God. "An angel came and stood before the altar having a golden censer, and there was given to him much incense that he should offer of the prayers of all saints." (Apoc. 8:3)

Kissing the Altar

The kissing of the altar and other articles is done, first, as an evidence of the respect due to holy things; second, as an evidence of love and devotion towards Christ who is symbolized by the altar. In performing this action, the priest extends his hands, as it were, to embrace Christ the Lord for the purpose of obtaining His blessing and good will, not only for himself, but for others.

Raising the Voice and Silence

The priest's voice is raised to address the people and pray with them that they may glorify God or express more ardently their affection. Silence is observed to indicate and to aid recollection of mind as well as reverence. This is done to remind the worshippers that the sublimest mysteries are being enacted and that the sacred words may not be made common. The alternation, changing from silence to audible speech, represents both the sacred silence observed and the precious words of the divine victim spoken at the time of His passion.


  1. Thanks. Great reminders that we can use some of these gestures at home, even when alone. A genuflection towards the east several times a day, when appropriate. Bowing the head when praying and encountering the names of Jesus, and Mary. In prayer, holding the hands folded and pointing upward like we see in some statues of Our Lady.
    I sometimes forget posture when praying, but have been reminded recently by Father Ripperger in one of his talks on Modesty. Reverence and reverent posture are part of Modesty.

  2. It took me a long time to realize that Lex Orandi means not only the words we pray, but also the very outward manner in which we pray. I'm continually amazed at how powerful the external things are in helping to create an internal state conducive to true adoration, prayer and thanksgiving.

    I really enjoy the talks of Fr. Ripperger. I also have his book The Metaphysics of Evolution, which I recommend if you're into Scholastic philosophy.


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