One famous liturgical historian has described the quality of liturgical celebration in the middle ages as a time of “dissolution, elaboration, reinterpretation and misinterpretation.” This unfortunate situation was due to a number of factors. There was very little conscious and active participation on the part of the assembly. The Mass was celebrated in Latin, which only the tiny majority of the educated might understand. And the Mass had really become simply the priest’s Mass. People were silent spectators. As one historian explains, people were indeed pious, but theirs was not a liturgical piety; they did not pray the Mass, but prayed during it.
To give the people some sort of deeper access to the liturgy, pastors and teachers fell back on allegory and symbolism. An allegorical meaning is a meaning applied to some aspect of the liturgy that is symbolic. It is not necessarily an obvious meaning, but used as a form of instruction. For example, not long ago, on a Catholic radio program, I heard the host explain to a caller that there are seven steps leading up to the altar because seven represents the seven sacraments (I was taught nearly 60 years ago that the seven steps represent the seven steps required to reach ordination to the priesthood). The reality, of course, is that most altars do not have seven steps, and the purpose of the steps is simply to elevate the altar so that it can be seen. Stairs or steps are an architectural or design necessity, and don’t have to mean anything. Pious allegorical interpretations were just added in the past by good-willed individuals.
Allegorical interpretations of the details of the liturgy are not common today, since we are able to participate fully and actively in the ritual without such interpretations. One of the difficulties of allegorical interpretations is that, with the passage of time, they could become an official part of the liturgy. Indeed, one of the purposes of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II was to remove allegorical symbolism that had worked its way into the liturgy over decades and centuries. One example was the prayers that the priest used to say as he put on each of the Mass vestments. These prayers tell of the allegorical or symbolic meaning of each vestment, and they originated as the personal, pious sentiments of individual priests. But these prayers became so popular that they were eventually standardized for use throughout the world, and their recitation was required of every priest before every liturgy.
The long white alb, for example, was said to represent the desire for purity of action and intention. The rope or cord fastened around the waist came to mean purity. The stole was a symbol of immortality, and the chasuble, the large outer garment, symbolized the “yoke of Christ” as well as the virtue of charity. Over the decades historians and liturgical scholars have rightly questioned the allegorical interpretations that had been applied to various parts of the liturgy. With the reforms of Vatican II, many of these private prayers of the priest, with their allegorical meanings, were removed from the Roman rite.