Monday, May 01, 2023

The Beautiful Death: Why We Favor Cut Flowers in the Sanctuary

At the start of May, month of Our Lady, and a month in which flowers start to become plentifully available again in four-season climates of the northern hemisphere, I thought I would share some sources and thoughts on the use of flowers and plants as church decorations.
Easter Sunday at the church of the Most Precious Blood, the home of the ICRSP Apostolate in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Allison Girone.

Years ago I was leading choir for the TLM in a church that was shared by two communities. The larger community seemed to have almost no awareness of the concept of ad orientem and, as a result, used to overdecorate the sanctuary with a veritable jungle of poinsettias at Christmas and lilies at Easter all around the front of the freestanding altar, apparently unaware of the fact (at least I hope so) that the TLM community had to come in and laboriously remove all these plants in order to have Mass, and then laboriously return all the plants to their former place in order not to cause offense. Eventually, the pastor caught on and gave instructions that the plants should be arranged in other parts of the sanctuary, leaving the front of the altar unobstructed.

In that phase of life, I had to spend a lot of time reading the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and various commentaries thereupon. The particular question of plants in church came up, both for the reason already mentioned, and because of concerns over potted living plants and artificial plants. Apart from the potted poinsettias and lilies, whose flowers fade fairly quickly in any case, Catholics have traditionally used cut flowers, cut greenery, and cut trees, and have avoided potted trees and shrubs and artificial flora in churches. Is there a good reason for that? Let’s see what a few sources have to say. 

Tasteful additions on a major feastday
In her very postconciliar guidebook with the almost doublespeak title The Ministry of Liturgical Environment (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004; this has been revised again but I have not seen the more recent edition), Joyce Ann Zimmerman, C.PP.S. writes:

Fresh flowers and live greenery are “a reminder of the gift of life God has given to the human community” (BLS [Built of Living Stones] no. 129). During Advent “the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation” and “during Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers (GIRM no. 305). Further, flowers are not to be placed on the altar but around it (see GIRM no. 305). The emphasis on “moderation” in this paragraph alerts us to the fact that our liturgical environment ought not to look like a floral shop or greenhouse! At the same time we ought to be encouraged to use flowers and greenery because they are natural and speak to us so eloquently of our Creator God. Dried flowers are natural and are a good choice, especially for communities with low budgets. Artificial flowers and greenery (especially the silk ones) look so real that it is very tempting to use them in our liturgical environment; since they are not natural their use is not desirable (see BLS no. 129). (pp. 35-36)
There is relatively little here one could disagree with. Even the point that flowers should not be placed on the altar has always been respected by traditionalists, who put the flowers on an elevated gradine behind the altar, on which also the candlesticks usually rest. Indeed, in one more irony, the modern-day table altar generally has candles on it (and sometimes a floral arrangement or decoration), whereas the traditional against-the-wall high altar has nothing on it except the altar cloths and altar cards.
Christmas flora
Sr. Zimmerman writes further: 

Lush, live green plants that speak to us of the vitality of life are especially appropriate during Ordinary Time. These usually need to be rotated into better light so the greenery stays fresh looking… Green plants near it [the ambo] (but not dominating) are appropriate and can be quite lovely. In the summer when fresh flowers are readily available (some parishes cultivate their own flower gardens for this purpose), it is always appropriate to use flowers in the sacred space (don’t forget the Blessed Sacrament Chapel!). Don’t make the space remind people of a floral shop, however! And remember: flowers are not permitted to be placed on the altar. (70)

She seems to envision living potted plants, which is a questionable proposition for reasons that I will go into below. It’s amusing to me that she worries the Blessed Sacrament Chapel will be neglected; for indeed the removal of Our Lord to a side space has had exactly the effect of causing negligence of His abiding presence in the tabernacle. Sister also encourages lots of flowers around the Easter candle (76)—no disagreement there.

Mark G. Boyer, in his relentlessly liturgistic The Liturgical Environment: What the Documents Say (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2004; this too has subsequently been revised), defends the use of real plants:

In a plastic, throw-away society such as ours, it is easy to neglect genuineness… While it is much easier to buy silk flowers, BLS emphasizes the genuine living flowers and plants foster a greater appreciation for the gift of life that God has given to the community. (12)
Like cut flowers, a candle "dies" to fulfill its purpose
Interestingly (and digressing for a moment), Boyer is more hard-line than a lot of traditionalists are when it comes to candles. He writes:
[A]ny candles used in liturgical celebration must be made of wax. Candle tubes, oil lamps, electric bulbs, and other candle imitations violate the principle of integrity, that a thing be what it is, a living flame, a sign of the risen Christ, a sign that each person through baptism has been brought out of darkness and into the light of Christ. Therefore nothing can satisfy the demand for integrity in lights for liturgical use other than candles made of wax. (37)

It is a shame that he did not spell out the middle term of the argument, which is that real candles give light by “dying” to themselves, that is, by being spent: the light is “purchased” at the cost of the body of wax. This illustrates the ascetical principle that one must die to oneself in order to have life.

An example of altar-blocking clutter
Getting back to flowers, Boyer recognizes that a freestanding altar should remain free of floral encumbrance:

When flowers or other plants are used in decoration they should not impede the sight of the members of the assembly or the approaching of the altar from any side. Especially when incensing the altar, the bishop or priest needs to be able to circle the Lord’s table without stumbling through or trying to avoid candles and flowers. The directive certainly eliminates bouquets of flowers placed in front of the altar, nativity scenes erected in front of the altar… (39)

Now we turn with some relief to a decidedly preconciliar manual, the Right Reverend Monsignor Harold E. Collins’s The Church Edifice and Its Appointments (Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1946; originally published in 1935). Msgr. Collins has a good deal to say on the subject of flowers, and it is worth noting that there is no adamant feeling against silk flowers.

The use of flowers to decorate the altar, though not prescribed either in the liturgical books or in the rubrics, is in entire accord with the traditional usages of the Church. The Caeremoniale Episcoporum permits vases carefully decorated with blossoms and leaves of sweet fragrance or artificially made of silk, to be placed between the candlesticks on the altar [i.e., on the gradine]. On the altars of the great basilicas of Rome, however, flowers are not used at all. Not to allow any flowers on the altar for the sake of being “liturgical” is another example of misplaced zeal. (154–55)

He then goes into some details:

Fresh Flowers. It is recommended that only the best blossoms be used for the altar. They should be freshly cut, long-stemmed, and hardy. They should not be crowded into a vase, but loosely arranged with suitable foliage. It is advised that flowers of but one color be used at a time [this seems rather arbitrary—PK], and that the color be appropriate for the feast being celebrated, as, for example, white for the Blessed Sacrament, red for Pentecost.
            Artificial Flowers. Artificial flowers, made of silk, are sanctioned by the Caeremoniale Episcoporum. Most writers of the present day regard them with disfavor and will extend them tolerance only when they are of superior quality. The Cardinal Vicar of Rome in his Instructions issued in June 1932 has forbidden the use of artificial flowers and has ordered them removed at once from churches and oratories and from altars in Rome.
            Plants. Some think that plants imbedded in soil in large flowerpots should not be used on the altar. There would seem to be no objection to the use of potted plants outside the altar in the sanctuary. Potted plants placed on carpet often leave a marked ring.
            Quantity. No explicit instructions have been given concerning the quantity of flowers to be used on the altar, but liturgical writers are unanimous in saying that flowers should be used with restraint or soberly. Flowers are ornaments of the altar and, though they may be very beautiful, they are entirely subsidiary, and their use is intended to mark a special degree of festivity. It is unbecoming to make the altar, the table of sacrifice, a mere stand for flowers. An altar which has a richly colored and decorative reredos, or even a dossal, needs only a few flowers to attract attention to its loveliness.  To pile up vases of flowers one tier above another on stands and temporary shelves until the panels of the reredos or the folds of the dossal are almost completely obscure is plainly a violation of all the canons of good taste and common sense. An altar which is a pyramid of flowers is badly decorated and a distraction, rather than an aid to devotion. (155–56)

As to where the flowers should be placed, Collins tells us:

The correct place on the altar for vases of flowers is between the candlesticks. If there be a gradine on the altar, the vases of flowers should be placed on the gradine, rather than on the table of the altar. Flowers may also be placed on the sides or on the steps of the altar, provided they do not interfere with the sacred functions. Flowers are never permitted on the top of, or before the door of, the tabernacle. (156–57)

The ban on flowers during Lent does not prevent other kinds of plant decoration, such as these cut palm branches on Palm Sunday
He then handily summarizes (157) when flowers are forbidden: on the occasion of funeral services in the church; during Advent and Lent, when the Mass of the Sunday or feria is read. They are permitted during Advent and Lent on these occasions: Gaudete Sunday; Laetare Sunday; Holy Thursday; Holy Saturday; the First Communion of children; during the month of March (!) out of devotion to St. Joseph. Nowadays, I suspect we would not be quite so generous with flowers in March, except on March 19 and perhaps March 25. He notes, interestingly, that flowers are permitted, in spite of the violet vestments, on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (since violet was used in pre-55 practice on December 28), on the Sundays of Septuagesimatide, on Rogation Days, and on Vigils.

The Rev. Henry Smart’s The Altar: Its Ornaments and Its Care (New York: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1925) offers an almost spiritual commentary:

Sweet flowers are used to beautify the Altar. Jesus loved flowers and all things beautiful. He has told us to “consider” them—St. Matt. VI, 28. Because flowers are beautiful and testify to the bounty and goodness of God, they are especially appropriate for decoration in the House of God. Thus flowers symbolize spiritual joy, and are in honor of Jesus, who is the Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley.
       The attending to and arrangement of the Altar flowers is a most important branch of Altar work, and one allowing of considerable taste and skill. Careful thought should be given to the selection of flowers, especially in vesting the Altar. Flowers can often be selected to harmonize with the color appointed for the day or season. For the great festivals of the Church, white flowers are preferable. When they can be had, red peonies are very beautiful and appropriate for Whitsun Day [Pentecost]....
       When flowers wither or decay, theymust be removed from the Church at once. Artificial flowers should never be used. (17–18)
Smith goes on to give a list of flowers suggested for each month, and, later in the book (pp. 64–65), furnishes a symbolic reading of floral emblems to be used in church, vestment, and antependium decoration.
Why, to return now to our original question, should we use cut flowers or plants destined to be discarded? As Our Lord Himself sacrificed His life for sinners, and as we die to ourselves in union with Him, flowers too “sacrifice” themselves to be at the altar, in the sanctuary—cut ones especially, but even the potted ones commonly used at Christmas and Easter. They are truly a sacrifice of praise! Living green plants such as ferns don’t sacrifice themselves, they aren’t a sacrifice of praise; they don’t die (unless one kills them by failing to take care of them).

Some may try to evade the logic by saying: Well, precisely by not dying they symbolize permanent life! How Paschaltidy! But that’s just the problem. Christ offers not ongoing natural life, but a new and eternal life gained by participation in His death and resurrection, made present on the altar and reserved in the tabernacle. Death, therefore, is a requirement for life. This paradox, at the heart of our faith, is reflected in the way we use plants in decorating our churches.

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