Altar oddities

NLM has an interesting piece about altar decorations right now.

I have nightmares still from my seminary days about the profoundly weird but apparently meaningful things done to the altar and space around it.

Lent was a particularly trying season.

They just didn’t get what an ALTAR is.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Henry Edwards says:

    They just didn’t get what an ALTAR is.

    They confused an “ALTAR of sacrifice” with a “TABLE of plenty”?

  2. TNCath says:

    Another reason to return to the ad orientem position!

  3. Yes. I was in a church last week whose sanctuary was decorated with artificial cacti and pots of sand of varying dimensions. Presumably, this innovation is intended to make worshipers think of Jesus’ forty days in the desert, but I kept thinking of Phoenix.

  4. TNCath: That would keep piles of stuff away from the front of the altar, wouldn’t it.

  5. MargaretMN says:

    Years ago I attended Mass at a rural parish and in the fall they decorated the altar with various agricultural products. You think sheaves of wheat? No. Southern MN is dairy and poultry. There were plastic milk jugs, cardboard egg cartons and a plastic cow. It was like an explosion in a grocery store.

  6. TNCath says:

    Fr. Z: Yes, unless they are going to put relics on the altar. By the way, won’t that be happening in Rome in the next couple of weeks?

  7. TomB says:

    piles of stuff


  8. Tim Ferguson says:

    Growing up in a very “progressive” church in the 70’s, during Advent the sanctuary would be covered with mounds of sand, to create a “desert effect.” At Christmas, the “desert” would “bloom” with the presence of hundreds of poinsettias and fir trees (which, any naturalist can tell you, are not indigenous to deserts).

    My brother, who was the parish janitor, had the pleasure every year of trying to vacuum the sand out of the carpet (orange carpet, throughout the church) – a sisyphean task. As a young altar boy, I and my comrades used to fantasize about playing commando in the piles of sand – rightly inferring that sandboxes are more attuned to playgrounds than places of worship.

    For Lent, we were regularly treated to barren branches, cacti, and, often in front of the altar a potter’s wheel. During a couple memorable and painful sermons, one of our associates would have a woman from the parish spin a clay pot while he waxed eloquent about how we, like clay in the hands of the potter, should submit to the probing fingers of the Lord (a turn of phrase which even made me, and innocent young child, squirm in my pew…err, my plastic formed chair).

    I would frequently retreat in my mind to the wooden pews and gothic sanctuary that had been our parish church until it was razed in 1975 to make way for this new monstrosity, and surreptitiously scan the pages of my mother’s old St. Joseph missal, which she faithfully brought to Mass even when the liturgical changes made it “out of date.”

    I thank God regularly for the ability to worship Him in a beautiful church, following the rites of the extraordinary form, with orthodox and inspiring sermons, and fun and games relegated to the lively social hour after Mass in the parish hall.

  9. Andrew, UK and sometimes Canada says:

    TNCath:“Yes, unless they are going to put relics on the altar. By the way, won’t that be happening in Rome in the next couple of weeks?

    +Mahoney, who recently trashed the TLM, also had some interesting views on relics so his altars (and many others) will probably continue to resemble well-meaning arts & crafts exhibitions.

  10. Father Totton says:

    Fr. Z,

    It wouldn’t be a bad idea to provide a link to the NLM post if you are going to reference it. Just a thought. Perhaps this was an oversight (or I am simply not savvy enough to find it)

  11. irishgirl says:

    ‘Thinking of Phoenix’ and ‘explosion in a grocery store’….ohhhh mannnn…couldn’t help laughing!

  12. Jack says:

    A couple of years ago my wife and I were traveling in New York state and stopped to attend Mass at a parish that will go nameless to protect the guilty. The altar & sanctuary were awash in foliage. It looked like the place was populated by Druids. On top of that, you had to hunt to find the Tabernacle, the stained glass windows all had nature (no religious) themes, and folks talked incessantly prior to Mass starting. My NON-CATHOLIC wife was appalled. It all added up to a complete lack of reverence and lack of focus of the eternal. It may not be that every congregation with a poorly/improperly adorned altar is spiritually lacking, but there does seem to be some correlation.

  13. Margaret: There were plastic milk jugs, cardboard egg cartons and a plastic cow. It was like an explosion in a grocery store.

    Udder nonsense.

  14. MargaretMN says:

    Fr. Z, you laugh, but truth be told, I was married at this parish. The wedding took place on the eve of the first Sunday of Advent. It was a close run thing as to whether I was married with groceries all over the altar. Fortunately, they decided to put up the Advent decorations a bit early (big purple and pink banners and altar cloth). It may not have been 100% liturgically correct but I wasn\’t complaining.

  15. Roxanne says:

    We sometimes go to a parish in the Peoria Diocese when we are in town visiting relatives. It is a beautiful old cathedral built by the Italian immigrants. We were appalled last winter when the entire altar was decorated with fake cottonball snow, plastic deer, bunnies, birds, trees, garland, etc to celebrate winter!! When we asked family members about this they said that a group decorates each season! It was so distracting.

  16. mbd says:

    Father Totten,
    NLM is short for New Liturgical Movement. The piece Father is referring to is currently third on that site. A link to the site is in the column in the left lower portion of this page.

  17. Thomas says:

    During Lent, we have a really large purple altar cloth that is bunched up and drapes along the ground, with a basket of brambles sitting out instead of flowers. In ordinary time, we have one of those really tiny green altar cloths that only covers the top of the altar. Christmas and Easter have all the flowers, though I wish they wouldn’t block the view of the tabernacle with a plant on a stand.

  18. “Udder nonsense,” dear and rev.d Fr. Zuhlsdorf? I’ll let you know what I think of your pun when next I am able to participate in Z-chat.


  19. Jayna says:

    My parish goes a little crazy with the poinsettias and fir trees at Christmas time. At the moment, it’s pretty sparse. There’s a, well, it looks like a dead tree, but if Father explained it right at Mass on Sunday, apparently it’s supposed to be in bloom by Easter. I’m not quite sure of the logistics, but that’s the story they’re going with. There’s also an extremely large cross on its side with a purple cloth hung over it. It is so large that the celebrant’s chair had to be moved to a riser right behind the altar and directly underneath where a crucifix should be, but where the Risen Christ statue resides instead. There is also no tabernacle in the main church, only in the chapel, so they didn’t have to worry about that pesky thing getting in the way of their decorating.

    It could be worse. No desert scenes or anything. And this year they didn’t fill the holy water font with sand, so they’re learning. Brick by brick.

  20. Ignatiangroupie says:

    One parish I attended in Diocese of Richmond, the pastor “sealed” the font, I mean wax seals and ribbons and decorated the alter with dead tree branches, pots of earth and sand. Sigh.

  21. supertradmom says:

    Dead trees and pieces of rock around the altar reminding us of what?

  22. supertradmom says:

    I forgot that my old parish each Fall has two large banners, an altar cloth with orange, yellow and brown leaves on it and matching vestment for the priest. Complaints to the Bishop about orange, yellow, and brown not being liturgical colors made no headway. These have been used for years.

  23. Ginny says:

    Our parish puts a dead tree in the sanctuary for lent with wads of masking tape stuck all over it as “chrysalises” that represent us, until Christ bursts from the tomb and turns us all to butterflies.

  24. Trevor says:

    We ran out of banners at our Newman Club, so they dressed up the crucifix with a stole. Mea culpa.

  25. CAL says:

    Unfortunately, the idea of over decoration of the Altar can go just as badly in the opposite direction. The new pastor of the pro-cathedral in my archdiocese has/is in the process of completely stripping the Sanctuary. The candles on the beautiful High Altar have been removed, the two marble urns flanking the High Altar have been removed, the two large candles on either side of the versus populum Altar have been removed and replaced by two tiny (5 inches tall) silver candlesticks on the Altar itself, and he has removed the Altar Cloth from the versus populum Altar and taken to celebrating Mass using only a Corporal on the Altar. There is also talkl of the immenant removal and “refinishing” of the choir stalls. Looks like we are heading into a desert…

  26. ssoldie says:

    I will never forget the one Easter at St. Frances in my town. The crucifix was put on a pole and then the pole was painted on the backside a cream color and then(the crucifix side)was turned away from the congregation,then there was on the back alter chiffon material, in colors of pink, yellow, lavender,all streaming down. Then there was a huge cross made of lumber, and drapped in white satin, and there were little stuffed lambs on the sanctuary steps. It was awful.I was blessed enough to find a Catholic Church 45 in away, where the Traditional Latin Mass was being prayed. I am there. enough said

  27. John UK says:

    “The new pastor of the pro-cathedral in my archdiocese has/is in the process of completely stripping the Sanctuary”-CAL

    The late ’60s and ’70s in the UK were a time of horror stories about skips [very large iron containers for builders’ rubbish – I do not know what one would call them in the US] being parked outside cathedrals full of vestments, statuary, woodwork, &c. as the reforms of the liturgy were put into effect with the iconoclastic zeal of seveteenth century Puritans. At least one cathedral, in Scotland, had its sanctuary enthusiastically whitewashed.

    But this is 2009. This is the age of the “reform of the reform”!
    Is you new pastor some aging relict, some dying ember, of the bonfire of the vanities???

    Super flumina Babylonis, illic sedimus et flevimus : cum recordaremur Sion.
    Quomodo cantabimus canticum Domini in terra aliena?

    John UK

  28. Irene says:

    Wow… This is all making me profoundly grateful for the Eastern tradition of having an iconostasis in my church… But I have tosay that sometimes Christmas trees in a church can be lovely. I was at a Serbian-American monastery once, where the sisters had put up two fir trees near the front of the church, and an icon of the Nativity between them, surrounded in flowers. Nobody could see anything, but it was actually pretty cool.

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