Altar of Repose

And More on Exposition at Via Crucis

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ROME, MARCH 15, 2005 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: What should be the atmosphere of the altar of repose for Maundy Thursday? Should it be an atmosphere of grandeur since the Lord instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood? Or should it be solemn, as we recall the Lord’s agony in the garden?

Since the renovation in 1999, our tabernacle has been transferred to the side altar. Now it’s not very visible as it is blocked away by huge pillars. I feel it has lost its significant especially during the Maundy Thursday’s liturgy. Before, the priest transferred the Eucharist from the central tabernacle, which was behind the main altar, to the side altar. Now the Eucharist goes back into the same tabernacle on Holy Thursday as there isn’t another suitable place for an altar of repose. As a designer, I feel I should do something to highlight the tabernacle for this special night.

Our new tabernacle now sits independently on an old altar at the side. Now the question is to decorate the altar of repose — is it wrong to cover the entire tabernacle and the old altar with a huge piece of translucent white linen that touches the floor? The tabernacle, under the translucent veil, is still visible as it has a powerful light shining from within. This creates a very solemn look. The idea represents the Lord in his suffering state — being submitted into human hands and is moving on into his passion and death. To me, that’s a very powerful visual but some feel it’s too abstract. Could you please comment? — V.C., Singapore

A: The place of reposition should be as beautiful as possible and should be sufficiently prominent so as to allow for adoration, even by large groups, following the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

In 1988 the Holy See published «Paschales Solemnitatis,» a «Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts.»

No. 49 of this document refers to our topic: «For the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, a place should be prepared and adorned in such a way as to be conducive to prayer and meditation, seriousness appropriate to the liturgy of these days is enjoined so that all abuses are avoided or suppressed.

«When the tabernacle is located in a chapel separated from the central part of the church, it is appropriate to prepare the place of repose and adoration there.»

With respect to the last point I would say that if the abovementioned chapel is too small to accommodate the faithful who visit on Holy Thursday, then a separate place of reposition may be prepared.

The case you describe is not a separate chapel, but a separate altar and so, if possible, it would be more appropriate to prepare another place for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.

Should there be no other option, then the procession bringing the Eucharist to this tabernacle should at least take a longer route within the Church so as to give meaning to this rite.

The altar of repose need not be a real altar and is often a temporary structure. In some places it is customary to make the place of reposition resemble an altar while others prefer locating the tabernacle on a column to make it stand out more clearly.

If a spare tabernacle is not available, the norms permit the use of a closed ciborium, though constant supervision must be assured in order to avoid any danger of profanation. Exposition with a monstrance is never permitted on Holy Thursday.

The decoration of the altar of repose should be special, At least four or six candles or lamps, and preferably more, should burn around it and should be tastefully arranged with flowers, drapes, fine cloths, carpets and a judicious use of subdued electric lighting in order to create the necessary ambiance of silence and meditation.

In those countries where it is possible, wheat stalks and young olive trees may also be incorporated into the decoration in order to evoke the themes of Eucharist and the garden of Gethsemane.

«Paschales Solemnitatis,» No. 55, reflecting the liturgical reform, specifies: «The place where the tabernacle or pyx is situated must not be made to resemble a tomb, and the expression ‘tomb’ is to be avoided. The chapel of repose is not prepared so as to represent the ‘Lord’s burial’ but for the custody of the eucharistic bread that will be distributed in Communion on Good Friday.»

Any crosses or images that might be behind the tabernacle should be concealed using curtains or drapes of white, gold or some similar hue so that nothing distracts from the tabernacle.

With respect to your specific point of having the tabernacle visible behind a translucent cloth, I think that it is not a good option as the point of the place of reposition is to emphasize the tabernacle on this night. If it is not possible to move the tabernacle, then I am sure that a creative rearrangement of the cloths is possible.

«Paschales Solemnitatis,» No. 56, briefly evokes the prevailing atmosphere for the adoration before the altar of repose: «After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the faithful should be encouraged to spend a suitable period of time during the night in the church in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament which has been solemnly reserved. Where appropriate, this prolonged Eucharistic adoration may be accompanied by the reading of some part of the Gospel of St. John (chapters 13-17).

«From midnight onwards, however, the adoration should be made without external solemnity, because the day of the Lord’s passion has begun.»

Thus the ambience should be meditative and silent. Even special activities organized for young people should strive to respect this spiritual climate, interspersing silence, brief readings, commentary and one or two meditative hymns or chants relating to the mystery being celebrated.

* * *

Follow-up: Exposition During Way of the Cross

With respect to our comments regarding the inappropriateness of making the Way of the Cross before the Blessed Sacrament exposed (see March 1), a Franciscan friar «begged to differ» and described his order’s practice.

«In some of our friary churches,» he writes, «we have perpetual adoration and for almost 15 years now we have had the Stations while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. We have been following the rubrics which, [by] my understanding, is approved by the Church. When the Blessed Sacrament is exposed the priest remains stationary, standing in front of the Blessed Sacrament, and only the cross and candle bearers, if any, move from station to station. The people remain in their places and genuflect at their places. They may watch the cross bearer as he goes from station to station, but most people focus on the Blessed Sacrament exposed on the altar. At the end there is no blessing given and the priest and acolytes exit in silence.»

Such a practice certainly shows all due respect toward the Blessed Sacrament exposed. But I would be more inclined to call it a meditation on the Passion than a Way of the Cross. As the name implies, the Way of the Cross implies movement.

Among the few traces of what might be termed official norms in this area are the indications of the Enchiridion of Indulgences, No. 63.4.

They stipulate that in order to gain the plenary indulgence it is necessary to move from one station to another, although if the exercise is carried out publicly and it is difficult for everybody to move, then it is enough that the director move from station to station.

This is not the above case as the priest remains immobile while non-essential cross and candle bearers do the moving.

Certainly the people who assist at the above practice may still gain a plenary indulgence in virtue of the adoration and the meditation on the Passion. And the option chosen is probably the best
in order not to interrupt the perpetual adoration.

Another question about the earlier column related to who may act as guide or director of the Via Crucis.

If a priest or deacon is available, then he customarily leads, but if not, then anybody may guide the stations although leaving out anything properly reserved to a priest and deacon, such as giving a final blessing.

A reader from the Philippines, among others, asked about the subject matter of the stations.

The above-mentioned norms for indulgences demand 14 crosses in order to legitimately set up a Via Crucis at which an indulgence may be obtained. Images or statues may be praiseworthily, albeit optionally, added.

In order to obtain the indulgence one moves from one station to the other reflecting on Christ’s passion to which one may freely add some reading, meditation or pious invocations. It is not required that one reflect on the specific aspects of each station.

Because of this, it is possible to substitute the traditional 14 stations for other facets of the Passion and, beginning with the early 1990s, the Pope has occasionally substituted other stations for the traditional 14 during his Good Friday Way of the Cross.

These have usually been taken from the Gospels but there does not appear to be a fixed or official scheme. On one occasion some new «Gospel Stations» were mixed with the traditional non-biblical stations of the three falls. Thus a priest or anybody else who wishes to prepare meditations on alternative Via Crucis has a wide range of possibilities.

All told, however, the most common scheme used in substitution for the traditional stations at the Pope’s Via Crucis has been the following:

1. The Agony in the garden
2. Treason of Judas and arrest of Jesus
3. Christ condemned by the Sanhedrin
4. Christ denied by Peter
5. Christ judged by Pilate
6. Christ scourged and crowned with thorns
7. Christ burdened with the cross
8. Christ assisted by Simon of Cyrene
9. Christ meets the women of Jerusalem
10. Christ crucified
11. Christ promises the kingdom to the Good Thief
12. Christ on the cross; the Mother; and the disciple
13. Christ dies on the cross
14. Christ taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb

As a corollary, a Florida reader asked about the public rosary before the Blessed Sacrament. This is different from the Via Crucis and has been specifically permitted by the Holy See in an official response to a doubt, published Jan. 15, 1997.

In this document it is stated that the Blessed Sacrament should not be exposed just to pray the rosary. But it may be included among the prayers carried out during adoration underlying the rosary’s Christological aspects with biblical readings relative to the mysteries and leaving space for silence in which to meditate and adore them.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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