The ordinary vestments of the priest—alb, stole, cincture, chasuble—and the symbolism thereof are surely familiar to most readers of this blog. Less familiar, perhaps, may be the maniple, a vestment like a miniature stole which the priest traditionally wears upon his left forearm for the celebration of Holy Mass. Though it is enjoying a resurgence among some clergy in these happy days of restoration and recovery (one of the priests I live with uses it daily, for example), the maniple has been largely forgotten since the liturgical reforms of 1969.
I was asked the other day about the history and significance of this ancient vestment, and although I knew that it had something to do with work (it has irreverently been called the Roman “sweat rag,” used to wipe their brows in the heat of the day), I had to admit my ignorance about its origins and deeper meaning. My best guess was that it signified the labor of the priest as he offered the sacrifice of the Mass. Then I found the following illuminating passage:
This vestment … originated from the mappula, the linen handkerchief that the Roman nobility wore on their left arm to wipe away tears and sweat. It was used also to give the signal to begin the combat games in the Circus. ‘Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris’, says the priest as he puts it on while vesting. ‘O Lord, may I be worthy to wear the maniple of tears and suffering, so that I may receive with joy the reward of my labors.’ And once again the battle begins against the world and its prince, in which mystically the priest sweats, cries, bleeds, and does battle in so far as he is on the Cross as the alter Christus.“1
The liturgy, after all, is holy work, but it remains work. Not for nothing does St. Benedict call it the opus Dei, the work of God. This fact is reflected in the etymology of the word itself, λειτουργία (leitourgía),which can be traced to the words λαός (laós), “the people,” and ἔργον (érgon), “work.” A fitting definition of liturgy may be the work done by and on behalf of the whole people of God in adoration of their Creator and Lord.
Of course, it is Jesus Christ alone, “the high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1),2 who offers truly fitting worship to God upon the altar of the Cross, where He himself is priest and victim. The ministerial priests of the New Covenant all participate in this one priesthood of Christ, offering in union with Him the one sacrifice pleasing to the Father, that is, the loving self-offering of the Son. The entire priestly people of God in turn unite their prayers and sacrifices, through and with their priest, to the eternal and infinitely meritorious prayer and sacrifice of the Risen Lord.3
What is key here is the notion of liturgy as sacrifice, namely, the self-sacrifice of the Son. We who have been baptized into Christ are one Body with Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:13). In the liturgy, the members of the Body are mystically joined, across time and space, to the sacrifice of that Body to the Father. Each of the baptized participate “in its own special way”4 in this work—the ministerial priest as head (‘in persona Christi capitis’) and the rest of the baptized as the body (we might say ‘in persona Christi corporis’)—but all are called to unite themselves to the sacrifice, offering themselves back to the Father in union with the Son.
There is one central fact in this lofty discussion of sacrifice and labor of which we must not lose sight. As a professor of mine often reminds us seminarians, “We love only at our own cost.” This is especially true with regard to the sacred liturgy, the ultimate labor of love. Whether we speak of the priest or the people, to participate in the sacrifice requires self-offering, the truth of which must not be diminished but rather magnified by the fact that it is self-offering in union with Christ, the “pioneer of our salvation” who was made “perfect through suffering” (cf. Hebrews 2:10-11). Like the Lord, we must love at the cost of our lives, our bodies, all that we have and are. And although “in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross,”5 we must not therefore be deceived into thinking our participation can be bloodless, a merely mental assent. It is a labor of blood, sweat, and tears.
In conclusion, Gnocchi writes of the priest:
There needs to be that painful and manly interpenetration in the sacrifice, of which the maniple is the sign and instrument … If the memory of it has been lost willingly so that one can dedicate oneself to the festal banquet of a salvation lacking any sweat and toil, then there is no place for the signs of the battle to which one must consign one’s own body.”6
To that, I would add only that the “festal banquet … lacking any sweat and toil” of which he speaks (and which too many Masses since 1969 have scandalously resembled) becomes in symbol a merely ritual meal, a community celebration, stripped as it is of signs of sacrifice and therefore devoid of that inclination of priest and people alike toward God in loving self-offering, by which we glorify the Father and are transformed in Christ.
The recovery of the maniple is a small but significant step toward the sorely needed restoration of the authentic understanding of liturgy as sacrifice. Brothers, wear your maniples! Good people of God, encourage your priests to wear them, thank those who do, and let the “maniple of tears and suffering” be a reminder to unite yourselves to Christ in and with your priest in the Church’s great labor of love.
- Alessandro Gnocchi, “Traces of the Hegelian Guillotine in the Liturgical Reform,” Il Foglio, April 10, 2014, trans. Fr. Richard Cipolla, at Rorate Cæli.
- Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
- Paul VI, Lumen gentium [Dogmatic Constitution on the Church] (21 November 1964), §10.
- Council of Trent, Session 22, “On the Sacrifice of the Mass,” ch. 2.
- Gnocchi, “Traces of the Hegelian Guillotine in the Liturgical Reform.”