Covering the Crucifix

And More on Wreath Candles

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ROME, DEC. 20, 2011 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

 Q: My parish has a beautiful crucifix mounted on the wall behind the altar that has been a great aid in my prayer life. Unfortunately, I must pray without this aid during the seasons of Christmas and of Easter, as during these seasons the crucifix is completely covered. During Christmas, a star is placed above the crucifix with a tail that hangs down to completely cover it. Likewise, during Easter, a banner of the Risen Christ is hung over the crucifix so that it is hidden from view. I realize that «a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, [be] either on the altar or near it» during Mass (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 308), and I considered the processional cross, which is placed beside the sanctuary during Mass, to fulfill this requirement when the crucifix behind the altar is covered (cf. GIRM, 122). However, upon further reflection, I now question if the processional cross fulfills this requirement as it is beside the sanctuary during Mass and not «next to the altar» (GIRM, 122); and, it is not «clearly visible to the [entire] assembled congregation» (GIRM, 308). As well, it does not «remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations» (GIRM, 308). Is it appropriate that the crucifix mounted on the wall behind the altar be covered during any liturgical season? — R.G., Leduc, Alberta

 A: While I don’t think it is a good idea to cover the cross during these liturgical seasons, it does not appear to be illicit.

It is illicit, however, not to have any crucifix presiding over the altar during the celebration. The processional cross could fulfill this function, but only if it is placed on a stand beside the altar during the celebration.

Indeed, the indications in the norms referenced by our reader are that the processional cross is only carried out of sight in those cases where a crucifix is already present on or near the altar. If there is no cross, then it should be placed near the altar and serve as the altar cross.

Another possible solution, if the wall cross is covered or absent, is to place a crucifix upon the altar proper. In this case the processional cross should be carried away to one side so that only one cross presides over the altar.

While there may be no absolute prohibition to substituting the main crucifix for a smaller one during these liturgical seasons, I am of the opinion that it is not a felicitous idea.

As the U.S. bishops’ conference recommends in its document «Built of Living Stones»:

«§ 123 § The tradition of decorating or not decorating the church for liturgical seasons and feasts heightens the awareness of the festive, solemn, or penitential nature of these seasons. Human minds and hearts are stimulated by the sounds, sights, and fragrances of liturgical seasons, which combine to create powerful, lasting impressions of the rich and abundant graces unique to each of the seasons.

«§ 124 § Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.»

In the case described, the crucifix as an important, albeit not primary, liturgical point of focus is obscured rather than enhanced.

While a star is a frequent symbol of Christmas, and even of Christ, placing it right behind the altar places too much emphasis upon a secondary symbol.

While the figure of the risen Christ might appear more justified, nothing would be lost and much gained by placing the image in some other part of the sanctuary.

I hope that this practice is not an attempt to deliberately remove the crucifix from sight during these seasons. This would be a grave error. The Church insists that a crucifix must always be present for Mass during all seasons of the year in order to remind us of the presence of Our Lord’s infinite sacrifice.

It is through the infinite sacrifice that Christ’s entire saving mystery, from the annunciation to the ascension, is made present in each and every celebration. Even though we designate certain times and seasons to underline specific mysteries, the cross remains at the heart of the mystery of God’s total self-giving for our salvation.

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Follow-up: Lighting the Advent Candles

Pursuant to our remarks on the Advent wreath (see Dec. 6), a priest from Ontario commented: «Since becoming a pastor I have very rarely allowed the lighting of the Advent wreath after the Mass has started. Does not the addition of this gesture, often accompanied by homemade prayers, etc., constitute an illicit addition to the sacred liturgy? Has the Holy See approved of this ritual? Why not respect the more spare introductory rites of Advent (no Gloria) and light the wreath before Mass begins?»

I would say that I am in broad agreement with our correspondent. From a liturgical point of view, only the blessing of the wreath on the first Sunday of Advent is included among those that may be used at Mass. This rite has received the approval of the Holy See for those countries that requested its inclusion in their translation and adaptation of the Book of Blessings. It is not found in the original Latin benedictional.

The multitude of other rites and ceremonies that have grown up around the lighting of the wreath are mostly geared to family celebrations. These may be profitably used in church but outside of Mass. For example, it is possible to organize a prayer service before the Saturday evening Mass.

If, however, there is no ceremony outside of Mass to light the candles on Sundays 2, 3 and 4 of Advent, I think that it is legitimate for the priest to do so at the very beginning of the first Mass of the corresponding Sunday (or Saturday evening) with no added rituals or texts. For example, after genuflecting toward the tabernacle or bowing toward the altar, the celebrant could simply light a taper from an earlier candle and, saying nothing, use this to light the next candle. He could then go to kiss the altar and continue Mass as normal. The sacristan would light the wreath candles before the celebration of later Masses.

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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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