Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

The Altar of Repose

This article was written by Jeffrey Tucker and is a re-print with permission from the New Liturgical Movement blog:

Fr. David Grondz sent me this very interesting commentary on a huge confusion out there concerning the altar of repose:

Since the revision of the Roman Missal and its promulgation in 1969, many problematic issues have arisen concerning rubrics and liturgical practice in general. Details have been left unclear and at times the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Sacraments has not been especially helpful in clarification of practice in the Liturgy. Perhaps the most confusing time for any parish priest is the period that we are about to enter, Holy Week.

We have all experienced celebrations of the Sacred Triduum that have left us less than satisfied. Much could be written about the intricacies of these ancient ceremonies. Permit me to address only one aspect, the Altar of Repose.

Our starting point must be Catholic Praxis and Tradition in that tradition informs us on many of the finer points of our faith; this is especially true when it comes to detail questions in the Liturgy. Classically stated the principle is, Lex orandi, lex credendi. The revisers of the Liturgy made several assumptions about common knowledge and experience that can no longer apply simply because common practice has changed over the last decades given the lack of a traditional consciousness.

Since, as the maxim implies, there is a reciprocal and mutually informative value found between prayer and belief, we need to consider again our approach to the example that we, as priests, give to the faithful not only when we celebrate Mass, but more importantly, when we are in the presence of the Eucharistic Lord.

A friend on mine once warned me, “it is easy to be reverent when there are other people around, but if you don’t genuflect in Church when you’re by yourself, then you miss the point. It isn’t a question of show or drama, but of an abiding sense of the presence of Christ in the Tabernacle.”

The rubric at the end of Mass for Holy Thursday stresses the fact that SOLEMN adoration not continue after midnight. According to a traditional understanding this would mean that the externality or public nature of the adoration should cease. Nowhere does this suggest that private persons may not adore before the altar of repose, and nowhere does this suggest that the Blessed Sacrament need be removed from its rightful place in the Tabernacle of the Altar prepared for this purpose.

It would, however, suggest that some modification of the locum repositionis take place so that the sobriety of Good Friday be maintained. To my mind this would mean (applying the principles of traditional adornment and restraint—which cannot be outlined in great detail here) removing the plants and flowers at this altar as well as all of the superfluous candles. Accordingly, the basic liturgical and canonical requirements would remain at this altar; two candles, sanctuary lamp (perhaps the tabernacle veil) and the altar cloths and carpet. All of this remains solely because the Blessed Sacrament is present. The Ciborium then, is brought from this altar to the main altar for Holy Communion on Good Friday.

Any of the liturgical authors such as Fortescue and Wapplehorst spell this out in great detail.

Somehow a notion that has emerged in the United States that Solemn adoration means simply the presence of the Eucharist the Church, at least on this occasion. A moment’s thought reveals the shallowness of this way of thinking in that its logical conclusion is to remove the Sacrament from the Church and place It somewhere else (usually in a safe or cupboard of the sacristy).

To be clear: this understanding is CORRECT, but MISPLACED in the liturgical sense. It is clear that at least for part of the Triduum, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in two places, one for the Liturgy of Good Friday (locum repositionis) and another OUTSIDE the Church for the sole purpose of Viaticum. It is also in this second location that the hosts which may remain before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper are placed (since the main Tabernacle is to be conspicuously empty) and to which the remaining hosts after Communion on Good Friday are taken after the ablution of the fingers.

It would seem that these two locations are important: First, because the Missal makes it clear that enough bread is to be consecrated on Holy Thursday for both that Mass and the Communion of Good Friday, hence no mixture of pre-triduum hosts with those consecrated on Holy Thursday night. Second, these three days are considered as one in a liturgical way: each is another part or continuation of what preceded.

The insistence of receiving the elements consecrated during a particular liturgy is most important here. Because the faithful receive in this way, it seems that the Sacrament should remain in the Church, until after Communion on Good Friday and only then removed to the sacristy. The old phrase of “in actu functionis” seems to sum this up.

I suspect that the common practice of putting Christ in the Sacristy is a reaction to a fear of the faithful paying more attention to the reserved Sacrament than the liturgy. After all, this has been a fairly common complaint in some circles and we have seen the fruit of this understanding… tabernacles removed permanently from Churches, Eucharistic Chapels (some of which are barely accessible, or only accessible by walking through the Sanctuary!) and churches that have been remodeled in such a way as to obliterate all foci and symmetry.

But since we believe, lex credendi, that the Eucharist is both meal and sacrifice, the Eucharistic presence encompasses both Thursday and Friday. The tradition of the altar of repose makes this link. It is a moment when precisely because the location of the Eucharist is different, but still in the Church, that this connection between meal and sacrifice can be explained to the faithful.

I was formed in an environment where the altar of repose was a major undertaking, no expense was spared and it remains one of the most beautiful parts of the Triduum for me. I have brought this experience to my people and tried to foster this sense in them. To be sure, it’s a lot of work and beeswax candles are costly, but the catechetical value of the experience in addition to truly following the rubrics and interpreting them in light of an understanding of continuity, exposes to our people the mystery of salvation more fully as it is enshrined for us in these three holy days.

Next week, for the first time in my parish, the Holy Eucharist will remain at the altar of repose until Holy Communion on Good Friday; and only then will the ciborium be placed in the safe for the communion of the dying.

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