Respecting the Altar


A parish wedding coordinator was talking to me recently about the frustration she experiences when people show no respect for the altar as a sacred place in the church. It is not uncommon for photographers to use the altar as a convenient place for organising their photographic equipment or to move altar candles because they might block the faces of the couple in the wedding video. The absolute limit was the photographer who stood on the altar during the signing of the register to get a bird’s eye view of proceedings!

Some brides also seem to treat the altar as a useful table for placing decorations, with one threatening to call off the ceremony if the celebrant insisted on relocating the two teddy bears which occupied almost the entire surface.

We might deplore such behaviour and complain that people would not behave in such an insensitive manner in a mosque or temple, but what sort of example do we set with regard to our own use of, and respect for, the altar and other sacred furnishings in our worship spaces?

I am sure we have all seen altars cluttered with extraneous items such as floral arrangements and other decorations, glasses of water, books, and so on. I would not like to be seen as un-Australian or as critical of those involved in the special Mass held a couple of days before a recent nation-stopping sporting event, but I could not help wondering where the large winner’s cup was placed after it was carried in during the entrance procession.

The sacred nature and symbolic significance of the altar is clearly spelt out in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:
The altar is the table of the Lord to which the People of God is called together to participate as well as the centre of the thanksgiving that is accomplished in the Eucharist. (296)
The altar signifies Christ Jesus, the living stone. (298)
Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar. Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa. (305)
Only what is required for the celebration may be placed on the mensa of the altar. (306)
The candles are to be appropriately placed either on or around the altar in a way suited to the design of the altar and the sanctuary and so as not to interfere with the faithful's clear view of what takes place at the altar or what is placed on it. (307)
The altar should be used only for the Liturgy of the Eucharist and never for preaching or making announcements. Readers and cantors show respect for the altar as the table of the Lord and a symbol of Christ by pausing and making a profound bow towards the altar when approaching the ambo.
Most people would take pains not to defile the sacred place of another faith tradition through ignorance or insensitivity. We need to ensure that we preserve the sacredness of our own places of worship by becoming better informed about, and more sensitive to, their purpose and use.

Modelling reverence for sacred places and objects ourselves is the best way of conveying to others their significance in Catholic faith and practice.

Elizabeth Harrington