Symbolism in the Traditional Mass

Everything in the traditional Mass has significance. From the altar arrangement to the vestments, voice, posture, and movements of the priest, one finds repeated the themes of adoration, sacrifice, propitiation, atonement, and union with the Divine.

Many of the liturgical actions in the Mass were at one time purely practical in nature, but from centuries of repetition and reverence became ritualized, and in many cases spiritual or theological meanings became associated with them. Even those actions which have lost their original purpose, the Church has deemed useful as adding splendor to divine worship while memorializing the faith of our fathers. As the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen said in a 1941  <documentary on the Mass>:

It is a long-established principle of the Church never to completely drop from her public worship any ceremony, object, or prayer which once occupied a place in that worship.[1]

In the 1960s, many liturgical elements were abandoned in favor of simplicity,[2] but in the traditional Roman liturgy they live on.[3]

What follows is by no means a complete list, but rather a sampling of symbolical elements in the traditional Mass. (Some of these elements will be found also in the contemporary form of the Mass in some localities.)

Ascending the Altar

Before the Mass begins, the priest carries to the altar the chalice and paten, on which rests the Host to be consecrated. (The word "Host" comes from the Latin hostia, meaning a victim.) This action hearkens to the sacrifices of the Old Law, in which the priest took the victim to the place of sacrifice.

The priest ascending the steps to the altar symbolizes Christ going up Mount Calvary to be crucified. It also represents going to the cross to obtain grace.

The priest opens the missal (altar book) like the Lamb of God opening the Book of Life.[4]

At different points in the Mass the priest kisses the altar. This is to show his close union with Christ, whom the altar represents.

Direction the Priest Faces

For most of the Mass, the priest faces East, the direction of the cross, the empty tomb, and the return of Christ. (This is discussed further in the Q & A section on the main page.)

The epistle is read facing East, because epistles are instructions for God's people.

The Gospel is read facing North,[5] because the North is associated with the cold, and with darkness and idolatry, therefore the enlightening words of the gospel are read in the direction of those who most need its light and warmth. The Gospel is also read on the side of the altar which is at the King's right hand (our left), because among the books of Sacred Scripture, the Gospels, containing the words of God Incarnate, are preeminent.[6]

Signs of the Cross

The tracing of the hand over the body in the figure of a cross is a sign of faith in Christ and in the efficacy of his sacrifice. It is also a prayer for grace, and a sign of the source from which the graces flow, especially when done by a priest over a person or object.

The signing of the cross at the Gospel by priest and people, over the forehead, lips, and breast with the thumb, signifies the following sentiment: "What I know in my mind, may I preach with my lips and love with my heart."

The priest signing the cross over the written Gospel signifies that the whole message of salvation is contained in the mystery of the cross.

Quiet Prayers of the Priest

The vox secreta (secret voice) which the priest uses for certain parts of the Mass indicates profound communion with God, shows reverence for the sacred, and brings out the priestís role as mediator (at those points heís not talking to us, but to God on our behalf). It imitates the silent prayer of Moses before the tabernacle, and the silence of Christ during his Passion.[7]

Lifting of the Chasuble

At a Low Mass it is customary for the altar server or servers to lift the rim of the chasuble, the outer vestment worn by the priest. At one time this was due to the larger size of the chasuble, which made lifting the arms awkward. The symbolic meaning associated with the gesture has to do with the chasuble itself, which represents charity and the easy yoke and light burden of Christ. Taking hold and lifting it signifies a sharing in Christ's yoke, and ease of lifting the burden through charity: for love makes easy that which is otherwise difficult.

Multiple Levels of Ceremony

Sometimes several things are going on at once. At a High Mass, for example, the choir sings various parts of the liturgy while the priest prays quietly or incenses the altar. These simultaneous levels of ritual symbolize the multiple aspects of reality flowing from God: with one simple act, he eternally generates the Divine Persons, creates the universe, and sustains all things in existence. One can also see reflected the diverse varieties of beings in Heaven praising their Creator, each according to its nature, in one great act of worship.

These and many other symbolical elements are woven together in the traditional Roman liturgy, forming a beautiful tapestry of divine worship.


1. The Eternal Gift, 4:08

2. Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 34

3. The Traditional Mass of course underwent its own development, and over the centuries various elements were added or dropped. The retaining of ancient customs is a principle rather than an absolute rule. The Church decided to simplify her rites, and she also decided to retain the older rites.

4. Cf. Apoc. 20:12

5. At a Low Mass or Sung Mass it is technically Northeast, for practical reasons.

6. Dei Verbum, 18

7. Cf. Is. 53:7

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© Todd Aylard