The Altar Cross

A friend sent me this quote from Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy, Chapter 3;

A more important objection is of the practical order. Are we really going to re-order everything all over again? Nothing is more harmful to the Liturgy than constant changes, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal. I see a solution to this in a suggestion I noted at the beginning in connection with the insights of Erik Peterson. Facing toward the East, as we heard, was linked with the “sign of the Son of Man”, with the Cross, which announces Our Lord’s Second Coming. That is why, very early on, the East was linked with the sign of the cross. Where a direct common turning toward the East is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior “East” of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community. In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: Conversi ad Dominum, “Turn to the Lord!” In this way we look together at the One whose Death tore the veil of the Temple — the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in His arms in order to make us the new and living Temple. Moving the altar cross to the side to give an uninterrupted view of the priest is something I regard as one of the truly absurd phenomena of recent decades. Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than Our Lord? This mistake should be corrected as quickly as possible; it can be done without further rebuilding. The Lord is the point of reference. He is the rising sun of history. That is why there can be a cross of the Passion, which represents the Suffering Lord who for us let His side be pierced, from which flowed blood and water (Eucharist and Baptism), as well as a cross of triumph, which expresses the idea of Our Lord’s Second Coming and guides our eyes towards it. For it is always the One Lord: Christ yesterday, today, and for ever (Heb 13:8).

As with some of the pope’s writings and talks, I admire his basic insights. The underlined section we will be using to assist the parish in discerning design and crafting of a processional crucifix this coming year. Where I think he runs off the rails a bit is in the practical application of the cross to the liturgy. Too often I think he misdiagnoses the problems and challenges of liturgy.

I confess I’m mystified as to the importance of placing a devotional piece on the Eucharistic altar. The “interior East” is the presence of Christ within the Eucharistic liturgy. The altar makes for a “platform” or staging for this, and Christ in the elements of the sacrament are the direction toward which we orient ourselves. This is true in almost any church architecture: large and long structures, small chapels, monastic antiphonal seating, or even the modern forms of fans or circles.

Writing twenty-five years ago as Cardinal Ratzinger, I think the wrong question is asked: Is the cross disruptive during Mass? I would suggest the altar cross is not disruptive so much as unfocused. In the liturgy we sign ourselves before the proclamation of the Gospel (or its singing at the Liturgy of the Hours). When we touch holy water to our body by signation. We also begin and end Mass with the same sign of “Passion” and “triumph.” The texts of the liturgy and long-established lay custom support these. It’s not “wrong” to call to mind the cross at any moment during the Mass. But some moments, like the Eucharistic Prayer, suggest a wider view–the Eucharist as Paschal Mystery, which embodies not only the cross, but the meal, as well as the glorious events of Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost.

Having a cross on the altar is no better or worse than having a dove or a flame or some depiction of the Holy Spirit, if we chose instead to focus on the Spirit’s agency in consecration, and in forming us as a Christ-centered, mission-focused people.

In one parish in which I served, the crucifix was suspended over the altar–there’s a nice painting depicting this. This strikes me as a more wise approach than appropriating a decorative element on the altar itself as a focus for liturgical prayer. I also like my present parish’s solution: placing the great cross inside the main entrance. One must confront the cross before one has hardly taken a step inside the narthex. One is again faced with the cross on the way out of the church. Jesus’s command was for his followers to take up their crosses and follow him. If I had to place the cross anywhere in a church, it makes sense for it to be first and last in our experience. And in the latter encounter, a special reminder of how we are to live as Christians in the world. Otherwise, the cross can become just a decoration, a nice piece of jewelry, a tasteful addition to a table setting.

So, no: the altar cross isn’t disruptive. I just don’t think it’s daring enough.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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8 Responses to The Altar Cross

  1. Tony says:

    God bless the pope! In the TLM, during the major elevation, the priest is supposed to be able to look directly past the elevated host and see Christ dying or dead on the cross.

    With the new “table” design in many configurations, the priest might have his back to Christ in the tabernacle, (or Christ might be in some separate room in the tabernacle) and facing Christ in his hands.

    The elevated crucifix is not bad, but unless there’s a corpus on both sides, the priest is facing Jesus’ back.

    This is the huge logistical problem with versus populum orientation.

    I was thinking of buying a small altar cross for my parish, but I was looking for one with a corpus on both sides. I couldn’t find anything like it.

    You know the solution to this whole problem, don’t you? ;)

  2. Liam says:

    Todd

    You put it very well, and I agree. I wouldn’t have cramps about a crucifix on the altar, to be sure, but the Real Action is still yet more the focus.

  3. Dave says:

    Planned renovations of our parish church building will mean that very soon we will not be able to see the tabernacle (a screen is being erected between the altar and the tabernacle), there will be no permanent crucifix in or near the sanctuary, and there will be no visible statuary (all being relocated). I will miss not having the tabernacle to focus on during private prayer. I would very much appreciate a crucifix on the altar.

  4. I would simply reiterate and emphasize that a celebrant cants or recites the EP and consecrates the elements into the Body and Blood of the Lord with a noticeable visage that is always aware of his personage in the presence of the icon as well as his own actions, the Faithful are afforded an amplified solemnity. One that is often missing when the person of the celebrant is the sole visual focus. The two way visual access is mediated positively with the presence of a prominent altar cross to which the celebrant avers.
    Yes, Todd, I’ve seen and experienced this at CMAA colloquiums. Full disclosure.

  5. Chase says:

    If the celebrant is intent upon having a crucifix to look at, then why not use one that would lay flat upon the altar?

  6. smf says:

    Might I suggest looking at the Eastern traditions as a reference point? I think that would be informative.

    Dave,

    That sounds tragic.

    I can only imagine the difficulty of a priest during the Eucharistic Prayer, of keeping his focus. I have experienced similar problems in other forums, where it is all too easy to lose focus on what one is doing and instead wind up locking eyes with your audience. It would be merciful for both priest and congregation if there were something else to remind us of the correct place of focus. In modern church’s I tend to favor the use of a small cross on the altar turned to the priest, and a large prominent cross facing the congregation. In my home parish the processional cross is too small relative to the distances involved to be a focus for the congregation, out of place for the priest and generally not satisfactory as an altar cross (which it does double duty as). However, there is a great stained glass scene of the crucifixion that is prominent in the sanctuary, and this can be a great visual aid to the congregation. (I should note the priest/altar servers bench is in the exact spot once occupied by the high altar on a platform raised above that of the rest of the sanctuary. Not at all ideal for the most prominent place in the church, the spot the entire church was built to draw focus towards, to be used for a chair.)

  7. Jimmy Mac says:

    Our tabernacle is prominently on display behind the altar and is in a chapel that facilitates private devotions and which can also be used for (very regular) overflow attendance seating.
    (http://www.mhr.org/gallery.html)

    During Lent we have a LARGE representation of the St. Francis crucifix (http://www.albahouse.org/crucifix.htm) that was crafted by one of our parishioners and which is suspended over the altar.

    There is also a crucifix on the left wall of the Eucharistic chapel. The stained glass window over the tabernacle is of Christ, the Most Holy Redeemer and serves as the corpus visible to all at all times.

  8. Pingback: Jason

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