Sunday, May 02, 2010

Lessons from a Temporary Altar Arrangement: The Altar and Noble Beauty

Recently, the Illinois Catholic Prayer Breakfast was held in Chicago. The event was held within the ballroom of a Chicago hotel and so the altar setup was temporary -- and yet, despite this, great attention was evidently paid to the details of the temporary altar to ensure that it had an appropriate dignity. I would particularly draw your attention to the "Benedictine" altar arrangement and to the antependium.

(Image source: Scott Smith Photography)

Before commenting further on this, I would note the Mass itself was celebrated in accordance with the modern liturgical books employing chanted propers. The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius also took part in this Mass, which was offered by Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki, Auxiliary Bishop of Chicago.

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This certainly demonstrates, yet again, the power and importance of dignified altar appointments and arrangements. Indeed, if one can give a temporary altar such dignity through these, and, further still, if this kind of effort can be put into a temporary arrangement, how much more should we be considering such matters in relation to the altars of our parishes where we not only have a fixed altar of worship, but where we also have the ability to set into place tailored, permanent arrangements?

The pragmatic question of cost always enters at this point of course, which is perfectly understandable, but may I simply offer this thought: this is an area where an extra bit of effort (and perhaps some enterprising creativity and hard work) is certainly worthwhile. The altar is, after all, central within our churches. Geoffrey Webb in his work, The Liturgical Altar speaks of "...the supreme importance which the Church attaches to the altar in her liturgy." He continues noting that "she consider[s] it the central focus of the whole liturgy, the raison d’être of the building in which its stands..." (p. 18-19) The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of "the altar, which is the centre of the church" (para. 1182) and as that "around which the Church is gathered" in the Mass (para. 1383).

Flowing from this, one can surely only come the conclusion that the altar is not a place to neglect nor cut corners. While compromise can at times be necessary of course, it seems to me that this is one of the last places to do it if it is at all avoidable -- and if not, we should at least consider such a compromise temporary. Instead, the altar is rather a place we should give significant emphasis, attention and priority, beginning from the very construction of the altar itself -- which should be of noble materials and form -- to the use of suitable and fitting appointments -- from the candles used (real wax candles are preferable in my estimation), to the candlesticks and altar cross upon it. These should be in due proportion to the altar and also characterized by their nobility and beauty -- which, far from being a distraction, only lend to the centrality of the altar.

To this I would add the following additional considerations, which should be thought of as neither trifling nor secondary.

First, that of the use of antependia (or "altar frontals") to give the altar its fullest liturgical expression, vesting it in the liturgical colour of the feast or liturgical season. These we might think of as the vestments of the altar. As Peter F. Anson noted in Churches: Their Plan and Furnishing, "It has always been the mind of the Church that, in a mystical sense, the altar is Christ, and that, like the priest who celebrates Mass, it should be clothed in precious vestments on account of its dignity..." He continues noting that "the frontal is one of the most ancient of all the furniture of the altar." Beyond this, the frontal itself also lends a further prominence and centrality to the altar, and "helps to mark the degrees of festivity in the Church's liturgy." (J.B. O'Connell, Church Building and Furnishing)

High Altar of G.F. Bodley's church of St John the Evangelist. Antependium made by Luzar Vestments. Detail of photo by James Bradley

Second, if we are decorating for feasts or festal seasons, let us not crowd our altars with an over-abundance of flowers but instead employ a tasteful restraint -- and let these be cut flowers I would suggest, not potted. For those using altars versus populum, let the altar not become an obscured backdrop by virtue of the placement of floral arrangements, nativity scenes, "Lenten arrangements" or displays before it. The altar should stand on its own and if anything should stand before it, let it be the priest.

Finally, in that regard and by extension, let us not fail to give consideration to the vestments which are used by the priest and other clerics in exercising their sacred ministry at the altar; nor, for that matter, to the vesture of the servers. These too should be marked by their beauty, dignity and nobility.

None of these considerations should be taken as mere aestheticisms. They are most certainly not that. They are rather matters which are tied to the importance of the altar by virtue of its role within divine worship, and more generally, to the dignity and importance of the Church's solemn, public, liturgical worship.

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