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.