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Monday, January 16, 2012

How is the Altar Set Up in Your Parish?

I came across a great article from Homelitic and Pastoral Review.  It is a great commentary on how one should approach the altar.  It also is a great examination on why the altar should be set up in the so-called "Benedictine Arrangement."  Personally, I feel that this is a temporary measure until the altars are again turned to properly convey the theological reality of the Mass, but this is a first step.

Here is an excerpt:

The cross is the focal point of salvation and of liturgical action. It should, of course, harmonize with the altar in style and proportion, but it should certainly not be low standing. The cross is supposed to disturb! The priest is not supposed to “overlook” it! However, the objection is sometimes made that a barrier is created by the cross between clergy and people, something on the line of an iconostasis (a wall of icons in Eastern rite churches, separating the nave from the sanctuary). But this is a specious argument as even the enormous altar cross in the Basilica of St. Peter does not really block the view. There are very few churches, after all, where the people face the altar straight on; more commonly, they face the altar from a lateral perspective, looking past the cross to the priest. Moreover, the higher the cross is placed, the less likely it will obstruct the people’s view. It thus becomes for all a spiritual “attention-getter” (if it is aesthetically high-standing). Finally, it is further objected that an altar cross creates a doubling of crucifixes, in the case that a cross already hangs above or behind the altar. However, the cross on the altar is for the priest, facing him with its corpus, while the faithful look at their cross above the altar.


The sacrificial action of the Eucharist takes place on the altar, within a continuous current of prayer: from the prayer over the gifts, through the Eucharistic Prayer, to the Our Father. In this respect, the Eucharistic action is markedly different from the liturgy of the Word that precedes it.  The ambo is, strictly speaking, not a place of prayer; the Opening Prayer is better placed at the celebrant’s chair. In the usus antiquior, the priest is always standing at the altar, and almost always praying! The silent prayers are neither private prayers nor mere time-fillers (i.e., horror vacui), but rather to make the altar a place of unceasing prayer.


This was precisely what the early Church wished to bring to expression in the prayer posture it adopted.  In prayer, when we speak with God, we embrace our filial identity.  But since in the physical space of the church, one’s view to the heavenly throne of God was blocked by walls, the effort was made to clear a virtual path of vision to heaven. The apse was often painted, or studded, with mosaics, with a section of the painting portraying the starry sky. This broke open the church’s ceiling to heaven.
The priests and the faithful could look up to the apse when they prayed, seeing  into heaven, so to speak. The gaze of the faithful was not focused on the altar and the celebrant, but rather overhead. The church building itself always had to be “oriented” to the east at this graphically depicted heavenly art.  The actual geographical orientation toward the east was of secondary importance.


You can read the rest there, but I can tell you...this is a very important article in understanding the nature of proper liturgical actions...kudos to the author, Rev. Stefan Heid.  Now it is time to implore our priests to follow through.

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