Saturday, July 2



In a comment box below, a reader noted:
"I was under the impression that Mass vestments were merely stylized versions of late Roman-Empire Sunday best. All the symbolical interpretations, while lovely in their way, are rationalizations from a much later period."

The obvious implication here is that this makes the insights gained from meditative reflection on pre-existing objects somehow less... valid?

Obviously, some vestments (such as the stole) were chosen and maintained for a specific symbolism since inception, because they were not normal Roman garb. However, in other cases (such as the chausable), they were simply maintained (not chosen) for the symbolism which they came to represent.

I have to say: that's really not a Catholic mindset! Many moderns have this idea that only a causal scenario can produce valid significance: that is, that a vestment (for example) had to be chose BECAUSE of a pre-determined symbolism, and that symbolism determined later would be somehow "false."

Not only is this not the way we approach, say, the symbolism of vestments, but it is not the way we approach Jesus Christ Himself.

Can it be said that the all meditative (and edifying!) ways in which we regard Jesus Christ, or all the symbolism we apply to Mary from the Old Testament, even in the most official Catholic prayers, were in any real way the intent of the original Biblical author? Highly doubtful.

Yet this form of theology is entirely legitimate, dating back to the Syriac Christians contemporary with St. John the Apostle. Theology done through the retro-spective assignment of symbolic meaning completely predates theology done with philosophical terms (where causal analysis would, in fact, be employed).

Some medieval monks, as they constructed an abbey in the 10th century or so, wrote a book on the "meaning" of the aspects of the church building. The brick mortar, they said, symbolized God's love because it took ordinary "stuff" (like us) and, with the addition of water (God's grace), it erupted into heat and ended in strength.

Obviously, the monks did not start using mortar because of this meaning: it is certainly what the brick mortar meant, but that symbolism was discerned after they started using it.

And, again, as evidenced by the way that pre-existing Old Testament imagery (which its authors seldom would have intended to refer to Christ) was used to shape our entire early-Church understanding of Jesus and Mary, that is the oldest way of doing Catholic theology.

(Although, there is this much of a "causal relationship": after the meanings for Old Testament types of Mary or Christ, or meanings of vestments, were discerned, these verses and vestments were maintained (at least in part) because of the symbolism which they came to represent, establishing, in this sense, a causal relationship between their symbolism and continued institution. But again, scratching around for a causal relationship is simply not necesary for credible theology done in this sense.)

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