The Cosmic Liturgy and the Way of the Lamb:
Retrieving the Tradition of Spiritual Exegesis of the Mass
John Saward


Part One (from Faith & Culture Bulletin 8)

The Summa theologiae of St Thomas Aquinas has often been compared to a cathedral. The structure of words, like the structure of stone, radiates the brilliance of order, that mark of a wise man whether in the science of theology or in the art of building. Thomas knows how everything ought to fit together and makes sure it does. He joins roof to walls and foundations, end to beginning. In the First Part he speaks of the Triune God and of creatures coming from Him. In the Second Part he considers man, the rational creature, and his movement back to God. Finally, in the Third Part, he contemplates the incarnate Word, who as man is man’s way to union with the Trinity. St Thomas’s cathedral has a grand plan, and yet he left it unfinished. Compared with the grace of vision he received on the feast of St Nicholas 1273, it seemed to him like straw. For us, though, whom God has not thus gifted, the ‘infants in Christ’ for whom St Thomas wrote this beginner’s guide, there is a strange completeness in the incompleteness of the Summa. Its last finished treatise is devoted to the Holy Eucharist, and the last question of that last treatise is on the rite of the Sacrament, that is, on the significance of the place and time in which it is celebrated, of the words uttered and the actions performed. The final act of St Thomas was, as it were, to offer Holy Mass on the high altar of this basilica of the intellect. You might say that, having begun with the cosmic liturgy, the universe created by God for His glory, he ends with the way of the Lamb, through whose sacrifice God is most perfectly glorified. This is a fitting conclusion, a completion in incompleteness, because, as the Angelic Doctor himself says, ‘[T]his Sacrament embraces the whole mystery of our salvation’. Now since the mystery it considers is so wonderfully comprehensive, this eighty-third question of the Third Part is in a certain way the summa Summae, that is, the final perfection of all the sacred doctrine that has gone before it, the crowning of the philosophy and theology of the Church’s Common Doctor.

What follows is an unfolding of a few of the treasures to be found in the Angelic Doctor’s exposition of the rite of the Mass. I believe that study of this forgotten corner of the Summa can contribute to the ‘reform of the reform’ of the liturgy, for it will help us recover a way of looking at the Mass, the saints’ way of looking at the Mass, to which our poor late twentieth-century eyes have grown unaccustomed. From what we know of his own way of celebrating the Holy Sacrifice, as well as from the content of this treatise, it is evident that Brother Thomas approached the great ‘cosmic liturgy’ by the little ‘way of the Lamb’, that is, with a childlike wonder and humility. What at first may surprise us, but eventually should enlighten us, is that St Thomas admires some of the very features of the traditional Roman Mass - for example, the repetition of gestures - that liturgical reform has stripped away in the cause of ‘noble simplicity’ and ‘active participation’. Now St Thomas recognized that in the rite of Mass, as in the rites of the other Sacraments, there is a difference between essence and accidentals. The essence of the rite, what makes the Sacrament a sacrament, has been instituted by the God-Man Himself and cannot be changed, but the accidentals of the celebration, the things instituted by the Church to ‘excite devotion and reverence’, can, and indeed have been, changed by that same Church. However, the Church is the Bride of Christ and is guided into all truth by His and the Father’s Holy Spirit, and so St Thomas insisted that her sons in every generation should cherish and revere her liturgical discipline, even concerning accidentals. This is a reassuring reminder for all. First, it shows that Holy Mother Church did not lead her children astray when her visible head promulgated the new rite of Mass. But, secondly, it proves the need for reverence for that older rite which the same Holy Mother, Christ’s beloved Bride, treasured for a millennium and a half. This paper is neither a critique of the novus ordo nor an apology for the Tridentine Mass. It is simply an act of ressourcement, a return to the sources, the fount of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, from which the Catholic mind never fails to draw refreshment, the promise of a ‘Second Spring’. St Thomas gives us a new way, - which is the most ancient way - of meditating on the Mass. His commentary will enhance our appreciation of the traditional rite, but it should foster devotion to the Eucharistic Sacrifice in whichever rite of the Church it is offered.

My second reason for expounding this question of the Summa is that I believe it can contribute to what the Popes have called the ‘evangelization of culture’. From the catacombs, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has been the inspiring centre of Christian art. As the present Holy Father has said: ‘The cathedrals, the humble country churches, the religious music, architecture, sculpture, and painting all radiate the mystery of the verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine, towards which everything converges in a movement of wonder’. St Thomas confirms this statement throughout our question. He shows how all the things done or made in the service of the Sacrifice, the many products of human art adorning the sanctuary, have a twofold purpose: first, they ensure reverence for the really present God-Man; and secondly, they signify something to do with His Person or redemptive work. For example, incense is used for the sake of reverence, to expel unpleasant odours, thus enabling man to worship God with all his senses, but it is also used to signify the sweet fragrance of grace that flows from Christ the Head, through the ministers of the Sacraments, to us His members; that is why the altar, which represents Christ, is censed first, the clergy second, and the people last. The church building is an outward sign of the Church that is Christ’s Mystical Body and Bride; that is why it has to be consecrated by the bishop, in order to represent - in St Thomas’s words - ‘the sanctification that the Church attained through Christ’s Passion and to signify the holiness required in those who are to receive this Sacrament’. The dedication of a church is observed with an octave to symbolize the unending Eighth Day that will begin at the end of human history with the resurrection of the dead. The altar, as a sign of Christ, should be stone, because, as the Apostle says, ‘that rock was Christ’ (cf 1 Cor. 10. 4). The sacred vessels should be made of precious metals out of reverence for the Real Presence. Wood is not a suitable material for chalices, because it is porous, and so the Precious Blood would remain in its fibres. Glass is fragile, and so the Precious Blood would be in danger of being spilt. Altar cloths are for good reason made out of linen: its purity signifies the clean conscience with which we should come to the altar, and the effort that goes into its making signifies the suffering of Christ for our salvation.


  1. Precedents and Presuppositions


In explaining the words and actions of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, St Thomas was following in the footsteps of the Doctors who preceded him and laid down signposts for the Doctors who succeeded him. In a general way, the tradition of liturgical exegesis begins with the so-called ‘mystagogical’ instructions of the Fathers. When an Ambrose or a Cyril of Jerusalem preached to the newly baptized during Easter Week, they explained the meaning of the mysteries they had just conferred. ‘You have become "Christs"‘, St Cyril tells his neophytes, ‘by receiving the seal of the Holy Spirit, and since you are thus images of Christ, everything done over you was done by way of image (eikonikôs).’

Alongside these pastoral explanations of the Sacraments, another kind of liturgical exegesis begins with that great mystic who humbly hides behind the name of Denys the Areopagite. In his Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, he presents the actions of the Church’s priests on earth as an imitation of, and participation in, the liturgy of Heaven. ‘Let us move’, he says, ‘from effects to causes, and, with Jesus lighting the way, let us turn our eyes to the holy Synaxis and the lovely contemplation of things intelligible, which makes radiantly manifest the blessed beauty of the archetypes.’ This rising from image to archetype expresses not just the speculative mysticism of Neo-Platonism, but the sacramental mysticism of the religion of the Incarnation, in which all that is true in Neo-Platonism (and, of course, in Aristotelianism) is fulfilled. Denys is one of St Thomas’s chief sources in the treatise on the Mass, as he is throughout the Summa, being quoted there more often than Aristotle. In the East, Denys will be followed by a long line of commentators on the Divine Liturgy, most notably St Maximus the Confessor and St Nicolas Cabasilas. In the West the first detailed exposition of the Mass was written during the Carolingian renaissance of the ninth century by Amalarius of Metz, a disciple of Alcuin of York. Later commentators include St Peter Damian, the hermit and reforming Cardinal of the eleventh century, and Pope Innocent III, reforming Pope of the early thirteenth century. Later in the thirteenth century commentaries come from St Thomas himself, his Franciscan friend, St Bonaventure, from his Dominican teacher, St Albert, and, in the form of a veritable encyclopedia of the liturgy, from William Durandus. One of the most important of late medieval authors is Blessed Denys the Carthusian, who was a faithful disciple both of St Thomas and of his own namesake, the Areopagite. The tradition of exegesis of the Mass continues, in both West and East, well into the twentieth century. Among others, we might mention the Austrian Pius Parsch, the Swiss Maurice Zundel and Adrienne von Speyr, and our own Monsignor Ronald Knox, whose Mass in Slow Motion proves that one can write simply and with humour for schoolgirls without loss of dogmatic precision or spiritual profundity.


Part Two: Principles

The first principle from which St Thomas sets out in his exposition of the Mass is stated in the first article: ‘[T]he celebration of Mass is a kind of representative image of the Passion’. He wants to show that Christ is ‘immolated’, that is, truly offered in sacrifice, in the Eucharist, and to this end, in the sed contra, he quotes a text of Augustinian origin: ‘In Himself Christ was immolated once, but in the Sacrament He is immolated daily’. The arguments runs as follows. We usually give images the names of the things they represent. When we point out the pictures in the National Portrait Gallery, we say, ‘There’s Churchill, there’s Dr Johnson.’ Now the celebration of Mass is ‘a kind of representative image of the Passion, which is a true immolation’. Therefore, the celebration of Mass can be called an immolation of Christ. St Thomas invokes this principle throughout the eighty-third question. Since the celebration of Mass is ‘a kind of representative image of the Passion’, its ceremonies, somewhat in the manner of an icon, visibly portray some moment or aspect of the Passion of Christ.

To say that the celebration of Holy Mass is an image of the Passion does not mean that it is just a series of symbolic actions, like a pageant or Passion play. St Thomas speaks carefully of ‘a kind of representative image’ (imago … quaedam), which suggests that the term ‘image’ is being used by analogy with the painted or sculptured image. At the centre of the celebration of Mass there is a reality beyond all iconography. In eighth-century Byzantium, the Iconoclasts refused to venerate painted icons because, so they said, the Eucharist is the only acceptable image of Christ. The Second Council of Nicaea rejected this argument: ‘Neither the Lord nor the Apostles nor the Fathers ever called the unbloody Sacrifice offered up by priests an "image" but rather "true Body" and "true Blood".’ It is the sacrifices of the Old Law, says St Thomas, that were signs or figures, ‘types and shadows’, of the Truth. By contrast, the Sacrifice of the New Law contains the God-Man who suffered for us, not merely by way of sign or figure, but really and truly, in rei veritate. When the words of consecration are spoken by the priest, the whole substance of the bread is changed into Christ’s Body and the whole substance of wine is changed into Christ’s Blood. After the consecration there is no bread and wine any more, but only the appearances - the species or accidents - of bread and wine, which remain but without any subject in which to inhere. In virtue of what St Thomas calls ‘natural [or real] concomitance’, the Blood, Soul, and Divinity are present with the Body under the appearance of bread and the Body, Soul, and Divinity with the Blood under the appearance of wine. Thus the whole glorious Christ, true God and true man, is substantially present under each species and in each of their parts. St Thomas is a realist, and his sacramentalism is a sacramental realism.

St Thomas says that the celebration of Mass is a ‘representative image’. To get the full force of that word, we should hyphenate it. In the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Sacrifice of the Cross is not just represented, portrayed, in the way it would be in a crucifix or Passion play, but also re-presented, made really present and offered anew in an unbloody manner through the ministry of priests. It is the very Victim of Calvary who is substantially present under the sacramental species, the High Priest of Calvary who offers Himself through the hands of His earthly servants for the glorification of the Father and the expiation of human sin. St Thomas quotes the secret prayer for the seventh Sunday after Trinity in the Dominican Missal: ‘As often as the commemoration of this sacrifice is celebrated, the work of our redemption is enacted’. Through the celebration of Holy Mass the ‘fruits’ of the Passion are communicated to men, its saving power poured out and applied to the needs of the living and the dead.

We have to say two things, then, about the celebration of Holy Mass: first, that the God-Man, Victim and Priest, is really, truly, and substantially present under the sacramental species, that His Sacrifice is re-presented in an unbloody manner; and secondly, that there are many words and actions embellishing the essential action of consecration and sacrifice that have an iconic or symbolic purpose, that is, to show forth the Real Presence of the Priest-Victim and the real making present of His Sacrifice. During the twelfth century, Latin theologians coined a distinction, based on the writings of St Augustine, that held together these aspects of the one Sacrament. In the Eucharist, they said, there is something that is a sign only (the sacramentum tantum); secondly, something that is both a reality and a sign (the res et sacramentum); and thirdly, something that is a reality only (res tantum). Before the consecration, the bread and wine are only a sign, a sacramentum tantum, of the Body and Blood into which later they will be changed; after the consecration, the accidents of bread and wine are only a sign of the reality of the substance of the Body and Blood, really present beneath them, into which the substance of bread and wine have been changed. The true Body and Blood under the sacramental species are therefore both a reality and a sign, the res et sacramentum: they are a reality, substantially present, but they are also a sign of the final effect of the Eucharist, namely, the union of the members of Christ’s Mystical Body with their Head and with each other. The unity of the Mystical Body is, therefore, the res tantum, the ultimate reality to which the celebration of Mass leads. The symbolism of the rites and ceremonies of the Mass, to which St Thomas and the other expositors refer, are, by analogy with the unconsecrated bread and wine, the sacramentum tantum, signs only. However, they are all ordered towards the res et sacramentum and the res tantum, to the real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, to the unbloody renewal of His Sacrifice, and to the final transformation of the Christian in the Church, in grace and in glory, through the Eucharistic Christ.

The second principle of St Thomas’s exposition of the Mass is that the celebrant is also in a certain way an ‘icon’ of Christ the Eternal High Priest. The priest consecrates in persona Christi. When he says, ‘This is my Body’, he speaks not with his own ‘I’ but with the ‘I’ of the Eternal High Priest. The glorified Jesus in Heaven is the principal minister of all the Sacraments and therefore the principal offerer of the Mass. The priest serves him as his instrument, lending Him his voice and bodily gestures for the accomplishment of the great marvel of Transubstantiation. St Thomas uses the language of iconography to describe this sacerdotal act: when he consecrates, the priest ‘bears the image of Christ (gerit imaginem Christi), in whose person and power he pronounces the words’. Here St Thomas shows how close his thinking is to that of the Byzantine Fathers, for example, to St Maximus the Confessor, who says that the bishop’s first entry into church for the celebration of the Liturgy is ‘a figure and image of the first appearance in the flesh of Jesus Christ the Son of God’. St Thomas argues that the Eternal High Priest makes mere men His priestly icons for an important purpose: to show that it is the very same Priest and Victim who offers Himself now in an unbloody way through the ministry of priests who once offered Himself on the Cross. It is Christ the Victim who is substantially present under the sacramental species, and it is Christ the Priest who is active through the man He has made His image and instrument.

The priest images Christ most perfectly when he speaks the words of consecration, using the ‘I’ of Christ, for this is the essence of the Sacrament, the moment of Transubstantiation and Sacrifice. However, in many of his other ceremonial actions, even those that are secondary and accidental to the Sacrifice, the priest images the person and saving work of Christ the High Priest. St Thomas shows this clearly in a reply to an objection in the fifth article:

The things the priest does in the Mass are not ridiculous gesticulations. They are done to represent something. When the priest extends his arms after the consecration, it symbolizes the extension of Christ’s arms on the Cross … When he joins his hands and bends low, praying with supplication and humility, he depicts the humility and obedience with which Christ suffered … [The priest] turns five times to the people to represent the five times the Lord manifested Himself on the day of His Resurrection.

Notice here the presupposition that the actions of the celebrant are determined by rubric, by liturgical law and custom, and not freely improvised.

The third principle is one presupposed by the other two: things and persons can be raised up to be signs or images in the supernatural order, in the sacramental liturgy of God’s Church, only because they are already in a certain way signs and images in the natural order, in the cosmic liturgy of God’s creation. The eternal Word, the uncreated Image of the Father, was made flesh in the Blessed Virgin’s womb, to restore the created image in man to its proper beauty and to make all created things shine with new transparency to their Creator. Following the Fathers, St Thomas teaches that all creatures bear a certain likeness to the Triune God who made them out of nothing: intellectual creatures by way of image, all other creatures by way of vestige or trace. Of course, however like the creature may be to its Creator, the unlikeness is always greater, for ‘the Model infinitely surpasses the thing modelled on it’. Nevertheless, the fact remains: we live in an iconic and sacramental universe, a world dense with signs, the masterpiece of the Divine Craftsman and His eternal Art. As Dom Gérard Calvet, the Abbot of Le Barroux, has said so beautifully: ‘Is there not in our universe a kind of first sketch of the liturgy, a mysterious theatre of songs and signs that waits for man to give it its full significance?’ This is the ‘cosmic liturgy’ of St Maximus the Confessor, who described the universe as a church ‘because it has Heaven for sanctuary and the adornment of the earth for its nave’. Adam failed in his vocation to be the celebrant of the cosmic liturgy, to give intelligent and free articulation to the glorifying of God by the sensible world. Only the New Adam, by His Sacrifice on the Cross re-presented in the Mass, can restore man to this noble calling and bring the iconic destiny of the cosmos to fulfilment. As St Thomas says, following a suggestion in the Gloss, the divine Word, through whom the ‘image of creation’ was made, was by His Incarnation the author of the ‘image of re-creation’ by grace and of the ‘image of likeness’ in glory. These are the high truths presupposed whenever the medievals pick up the ‘book of nature’ and find on its pages the handwriting of God. This is the dogmatic theology that underlies the symbolic theology of the expositors of the Mass.

The fourth principle underlying the exposition of the rite of Mass is lex orandi, lex credendi: the words with which the Church prays are an expression of what she believes. The Fathers invoked this principle when they defended the faith against heresy. For example, when St Augustine was dealing with the Semi-Pelagians, he pointed out that the Church prays for unbelievers to be converted, which implies that the beginning of faith comes from the prevenient action of God’s grace, and not from the initiative of the human will. Everything we find in the Church’s Creed is reproduced in the words and actions of Holy Mass. The Creed is Trinitarian and Christological, and so, too, are the prayers of the Mass. Thus, according to St Thomas, in the Sanctus the people praise the divinity of Christ with the angels, and in the Benedictus they praise the humanity of Christ with the children of Jerusalem. Denys the Carthusian points out that the word ‘Holy’ is said three times to represent the Three Divine Persons, while ‘Lord God of Hosts’ is added in the singular to show forth the one Divine Essence.

The fifth principle is that the spiritual exegesis of the Sacred Liturgy presupposes and in a certain way resembles the spiritual exegesis of the Sacred Scriptures. Just as the words of the Bible, by the Holy Spirit’s inspiring of the sacred authors, have more than one sense, that is, refer to more than one reality, so, too, do the words and actions of the Mass, by the Holy Spirit’s guiding of Holy Church into all the truth. They signify what the Church holds by faith, what she longs for by hope, and what she strives to live by charity. According to the traditional exegesis, the drama of the Mass represents the whole history of salvation, from the yearning of the Patriarchs and Prophets for Christ’s first coming (expressed in the Introit) to His Ascension and Second Coming (symbolized by the final blessing, for Christ blessed His disciples when He ascended into Heaven, Luke 24. 50, and when He comes again, He will bless the elect, saying, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father’, Matt. 25. 34).


The third part of this three-part article is due to appear in the second issue of Second Spring. John Saward is Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria.