Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The mass, in ordinary language, is the greatest and most august of the ceremonies of the Church. Different names are given to it, according to the rites practised in the various countries where it is celebrated; as the Mozarabian or Gothic mass, the Greek mass, the Latin mass. Durandus and Eckius call those masses dry, in which no consecration is made, as that which is appointed to be said in particular by aspirants to the priesthood; and Cardinal Bona relates, on the authority of William of Nangis, that St. Louis, in his voyage abroad, had it said in this manner, lest the motion of the vessel should spill the consecrated wine. He also quoted Génébrard, who says that he assisted at Turin, in 1587, at a similar mass, celebrated in a church, but after dinner and very late, for the funeral of a person of rank.

Pierre le Chantre also speaks of the two-fold, three-fold, and even four-fold mass, in which the priest celebrated the mass of the day or the feast, as far as the offertory, then began a second, third, and sometimes a fourth, as far as the same place; after which he said as many secretas as he had begun masses; he recited the canon only once for the whole; and at the end he added as many collects as he had joined together masses.

It was not until about the close of the fourth century that the word “mass” began to signify the celebration of the eucharist. The learned Beatus Rhenanus, in his notes on Tertullian, observes, that St. Ambrose consecrated this popular expression, “missa,” taken from the sending out of the catechumens, after the reading of the gospel.

In the “Apostolical Constitutions,” we find a liturgy in the name of St. James, by which it appears, that instead of invoking the saints in the canon of the mass, the primitive Church prayed for them. “We also offer to Thee, O Lord,” said the celebrator, “this bread and this chalice for all the saints that have been pleasing in Thy sight from the beginning of ages: for the patriarchs, the prophets, the just, the apostles, the martyrs, the confessors, bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, readers, chanters, virgins, widows, laymen, and all whose names are known unto Thee.” But St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the fourth century, substituted this explanation: “After which,” says he, “we commemorate those who die before us, and first the patriarchs, apostles, and martyrs, that God may receive our prayers through their intercession.” This proves — as will be said in the article on “Relics”— that the worship of the saints was then beginning to be introduced into the Church.

Noel Alexander cites acts of St. Andrew, in which that apostle is made to say: “I offer up every day, on the altar of the only true God, not the flesh of bulls, nor the blood of goats, but the unspotted lamb, which still remains living and entire after it is sacrificed, and all the faithful eat of its flesh”; but this learned Dominican acknowledges that this piece was unknown until the eighth century. The first who cited it was Ætherius, bishop of Osma in Spain, who wrote against Ælipard in 788.

Abdias relates that St. John, being warned by the Lord of the termination of his career, prepared for death and recommended his Church to God. He then had bread brought to him, which he took, and lifting up his hands to heaven, blessed it, broke it, and distributed it among those who were present, saying: “Let my portion be yours, and let yours be mine.” This manner of celebrating the eucharist — which means thanksgiving — is more conformable to the institution of that ceremony.

St. Luke indeed informs us, that Jesus, after distributing bread and wine among his apostles, who were supping with him, said to them: “Do this in memory of me.” St. Matthew and St. Mark say, moreover, that Jesus sang a hymn. St. John, who in his gospel mentions neither the distribution of the bread and wine, nor the hymn, speaks of the latter at great length in his Acts, of which we give the text, as quoted by the Second Council of Nice:

“Before our Lord was taken by the Jews,” says this well-beloved apostle of Jesus, “He assembled us all together, and said to us: ‘Let us sing a hymn in honor of the Father, after which we will execute the design we have conceived.’ He ordered us therefore to form a circle, holding one another by the hand; then, having placed Himself in the middle of the circle, He said to us: ‘Amen; follow me.’ Then He began the canticle, and said: ‘Glory be to Thee, O Father!’ We all answered, ‘Amen.’ Jesus continued, saying, ‘Glory to the Word,’ etc. ‘Glory to the Spirit,’ etc. ‘Glory to Grace,’ etc., and the apostles constantly answered, ‘Amen.’ ”

After some other doxologies, Jesus said, “I will save, and I will be saved, Amen. I will unbind, and I will be unbound, Amen. I will be wounded, and I will wound, Amen. I will be born, and I will beget, Amen. I will eat, and I will be consumed, Amen. I will be hearkened to, and I will hearken, Amen. I will be comprehended by the spirit, being all spirit, all understanding, Amen. I will be washed, and I will wash, Amen. Grace brings dancing; I will play on the flute; all of you dance, Amen. I will sing sorrowful airs; now all of you lament, Amen.”

St. Augustine, who begins a part of this hymn in his “Epistle to Ceretius,” gives also the following: “I will deck, and I will be decked. I am a lamp to those who see me and know me. I am the door for all who will knock at it. Do you, who see what I do, be careful not to speak of it.”

This dance of Jesus and the apostles is evidently imitated from that of the Egyptian Therapeutæ, who danced after supper in their assemblies, at first divided into two choirs, then united the men and the women together, as at the feast of Bacchus, after swallowing plenty of celestial wine as Philo says.

Besides we know, that according to the Jewish tradition, after their coming out of Egypt, and passing the Red Sea, whence the solemnity of the Passover took its name, Moses and his sister assembled two musical choirs, one composed of men, the other of women, who, while dancing, sang a canticle of thanksgiving. These instruments instantaneously assembled, these choirs arranged with so much promptitude, the facility with which the songs and dances are executed, suppose a training in these two exercises much anterior to the moment of execution.

The usage was afterwards perpetrated among the Jews. The daughters of Shiloh were dancing according to custom, at the solemn feast of the Lord, when the young men of the tribe of Benjamin, to whom they had been refused for wives, carried them off by the counsel of the old men of Israel. And at this day, in Palestine, the women, assembled near the tombs of their relatives, dance in a mournful manner, and utter cries of lamentation.

We also know that the first Christians held among themselves agapæ, or feasts of charity, in memory of the last supper which Jesus celebrated with his apostles, from which the Pagans took occasion to bring against them the most odious charges; on which, to banish every shadow of licentiousness, the pastors forbade the kiss of peace, that concluded the ceremony to be given between persons of different sexes. But various abuses, which were even then complained of by St. Paul, and which the Council of Gangres, in the year 324, vainly undertook to reform, at length caused the agapæ to be abolished in 397, by the Third Council of Carthage, of which the forty-first canon ordained, that the holy mysteries should be celebrated fasting.

It will not be doubted that these feastings were accompanied by dances, when it is recollected that, according to Scaliger, the bishops were called in the Latin Church “præsules,” (from præsiliendo) only because they led off the dance. Heliot, in his “History of the Monastic Orders,” says also, that during the persecutions which disturbed the peace of the first Christians, congregations were formed of men and women, who, after the manner of the Therapeutæ, retired into the deserts, where they assembled in the hamlets on Sundays and feast days, and danced piously, singing the prayers of the Church.

In Portugal, in Spain, and in Roussillon, solemn dances are still performed in honor of the mysteries of Christianity. On every vigil of a feast of the Virgin, the young women assemble before the doors of the churches dedicated to her, and pass the night in dancing round, and singing hymns and canticles in honor of her. Cardinal Ximenes restored in his time, in the cathedral of Toledo, the ancient usage of the Mozarabian mass, during which dances are performed in the choir and the nave, with equal order and devotion. In France too, about the middle of the last century, the priests and all the people of the Limoges might be seen dancing round in the collegiate church, singing: “Sant Marcian pregas pernous et nous epingaren per bous” — that is, “St. Martian, pray for us, and we will dance for you.”

And lastly, the Jesuit Menestrier, in the preface to his “Treatise on Ballets,” published in 1682, says, that he had himself seen the canons of some churches take the singing boys by the hand on Easter day, and dance in the choir, singing hymns of rejoicing. What has been said in the article on “Calends,” of the extravagant dances of the feast of fools, exhibits a part of the abuses which have caused dancing to be discontinued in the ceremonies of the mass, which, the greater their gravity, are the better calculated to impose on the simple.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01