ASK FATHER: Standing on altar to change sanctuary lamp.

From a reader…


What is the consequence of standing on the alter table to change a hanging sanctuary lamp? (I just saw this after mass today)

Consequences can be dire, especially for the ladies of the altar guild who have to clean the altar cloths.  Those footprints are pesky.

Also, the rubrics say that the perpetrator is to be caused to write “I will not stand on the altar” 10,000 times, after which he is to be fed only on bread and water until the following Sunday, when he must publicly do penance by sitting in the back corner of the church with headphones listening to recordings of the priests past sermons.

Frankly, depending on the layout of the sanctuary, there aren’t a lot of options for doing certain things.  For example, shifting large candle sticks on a top gradine or changing their candles… or sometimes lighting them.  Putting up the veils over images on Passion Sunday comes to mind.  Having help with the ability to levitate really helps.  Believe me.

I wouldn’t worry about this, even though it was jarring to see.  It would have been better for that to have been done when people were not in church.   Everything that happens on or near the altar is important.  Catholics, as you did, sense that.

Also, one must consider the reason why one might stand on an altar.  It is one thing to change a lamp (which shows respect to the Blessed Sacrament).  It is another thing to climb up and start shouting about abortion rights, as a protestrix might do.  I think this happened in Notre-Dame in Paris.

On the other hand, it could be that, if the sanctuary lamp hadn’t been changed because people were there, I might have gotten a question about the consequences for not having changed the sanctuary lamp.

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  1. APX says:

    I witnessed this once and it was the most disturbing thing I saw until I found our Lord on the floor. Altars are consecrated to offer sacrifice. It’s not like standing on the kitchen counter or a table. Surely there must be a better way to change the sanctuary candle.

  2. bobbird says:

    We have a different problem in our parishes: since the Tabernacle is off to the side (and seldom reverenced), standing on an altar is not in the cards. But we DO have an electric light Vigil Lamp. This is not kosher, we know, but we get the stiff arm in our requests. When power goes out, the Sanctuary goes dark.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Rolling ladders are nice. A little pricey.

  4. Gab says:

    Hope it’s okay to put this here, Father, it’s a fascinating talk on the altar – history, construction, symbolism, tradition and blessings and Graces.

  5. Lurker 59 says:

    One of the parishes that I was at long ago had a high altar that was not tight against the wall forming a hidden hallway between the sacristry on one side and a storage room on the other. One could go up the back of the altar to deal with things that were on top of the altar or above it. It is often the case that there are hidden pathways or mechanisms to access areas that appear out of reach in order to clean and maintain.

    When we see how things are cleaned and maintained, it can be akin to learning a magicians trick or, as in this case, seeing how sausage is made. I assume you are talking about a free-standing altar here.
    I can easily picture the sanctuary lamp hung in such a way that using a ladder might be a safety concern, especially with marble floors and limited space to properly place a ladder.

  6. Rob in Maine says:

    I was once in a community chorus. We sang Vivaldi’s Gloria at the Cathedral. The risers went from the floor, up the sanctuary steps and went almost right up against the altar. Rocco Didonato, the Cathedral custodian, God rest his soul, was almost apoplectic.

  7. kurtmasur says:

    I believe the same happens at the Papal Altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in preparation for a papal mass about to begin. If I recall correctly, I once spotted a clergy member in red cassock (probably one of the MCs?) standing on the altar in order to work with the altar candles, which were very tall, about the same height as that of an adult.

  8. Charivari Rob says:

    Consequences for the ladies of the altar guild?


    Consequences from the ladies of the altar guild for any schlemiel who messes up their good work?

    I’d say do as needs doing, but with care – take off shoes, fold back the altar cloth, don’t stand on the relic stone, maybe have a square of other cloth or towel or foam rubber to stand on and protect the surface.

  9. jaykay says:

    Rob in Maine: yes, I’ve been in choral performances in the sanctuary where the choir is tight up against the “peoples’ altar” – and people have put scorebooks, glasses, water bottles etc. on it… hey, it’s just furniture. And it’s the “peoples’ altar” after all. Sarc off.

    That said, I’ve never seen anyone actually standing on an altar. The older type of hanging sanctuary lamp tends to have a counterweight, so it can be raised and lowered by using a pole with a hook. Good idea, I think.

  10. excalibur says:

    Since the parish consolidations here my church/parish is now run by the Salesians. I do not know why Cardinal Dolan did this, no one was invited to give their opinions on all of this, just a handful of selected people to rubber stamp all that went down. No input at all was sought.

    The sanctuary lamp was always red from the time I can remember, but now it is white.

  11. Beltway Catholic says:

    I remember preparing churches for Christmas, very traditional ones, with very tradition-minded people. Sometimes there is simply no better way to care for the needs of the liturgy than by crawling atop an altar, particularly if you have to access the raredos.

  12. Hidden One says:

    I’m glad that I have never seen someone stand on an altar, nor do I think I’ve ever seen a sanctuary lamp for which such would be required, although I have no trouble believing they exist, and if one has to…

    Anyway, this thread has inspired me to ask the following: is there a traditional blessing for ladders?

  13. Joe in Canada says:

    standing on the Altar?

  14. John Pomeroy says:

    In our parish, I don’t know where the lamp was before, but back in the 60’s, when they installed the table in the middle of the Sanctuary, they also wanted to move the Lamp, so it was above the Altar.

    The main problem was that the Sanctuary is about 25 or 30 feet tall and arched and replacing the Lamp’s candle would be hard. But one of the parishioners came up with the idea of attaching the chain that held the Lamp to a cable and then hooking the cable to a winch that was above the ceiling.

    Now, there’s a “light switch” in the Sacristy. Push it one way and the Lamp comes down. Change the candle, and move the switch and there goes the Lamp 10 or so feet in the air above the Altar.


  15. knute says:

    To avoid soiling the altar linens, the lamp changer might wear these:

    Pack of 300 Disposable Shoe Covers

    That being said, I think this is another example of the superior practicality of having sanctuary lamps situated somewhere other than directly above the altar.

  16. Clinton R. says:

    “Having help with the ability to levitate really helps. Believe me.”
    Just like St. Joseph of Cupertino.

  17. iPadre says:

    I’ve seen the altar boys in St. Peter’s standing on the main altar to change candles and move them around . If not, you would need a crane.

  18. MrsMacD says:

    Ambience is important.

    When I worked with a professional puppeteer he taught me to never show the children the puppets outside of the show because part of the ‘magic’ would be lost and the show would not have the same appeal to those children again.

    When I set everything up for Christmas Day on Christmas Eve, once all the children are in the van ready to tear off to midnight Mass, I run around put the presents under the tree, put baby Jesus in the crib, set the table, turn on the Christmas lights and put out treats. If I did it in front of them the whole ritual would lose part of the sense of mystery.

    It’s important to keep things like standing on the altar for times when folks are out of the church, if possible, in order to help keep a sacred ambience. (If possible)

  19. fishonthehill says:

    Climbing on traditional high altars, (with all sorts of neogothic spires that soar in the air, angels, columns, capitals and nooks and crannies) was always a common practice as an Altar Boy. Cleaning cobwebs, wiping soot, changing candles, and polishing brass, were always a privilege for a few of dedicated servers. Made you feel closer to God! First, Remove the cloths, then get out the ladders and step stools and start climbing, and wipe your prints from the marble. Nothing sacrilegious, always done in a locked church, with a sacristan or maintenance guy. I guess the old adage… “you don’t want to see how sausage is made” rings true in this case.

  20. Sonshine135 says:

    Probably not the best way to change the sanctuary lamp. Instead of being jarred, if you don’t want to see that, you could always make a donation for a lamp that can be lowered instead.

  21. frjim4321 says:

    We have to not only stand on the altar but also put a ladder on it to cover the crucifix for passiontide. But the altar cloth and corporal are removed and cardboard is put on the marble top of the altar. I don’t think anyone considers it to be disrespectful.

    [Anyone? That in itself should raise questions about what people understand about altars. Even the well-informed should be at least reluctant to stand on an altar or should find the sight at least jarring.]

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