This section is a basic primer for parish art/environment groups. First, an overview of the basic thrust of the liturgical year:
§ 122 § During the liturgical year the Church unfolds the whole mystery of Christ, from his incarnation and birth through his passion, death, and resurrection to his ascension, the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of his coming in glory. In its celebration of these mysteries, the Church makes these sacred events present to the people of every age.(SC 102)
Decorations set the mood and appeal to the senses:
§ 123 § The tradition of decorating or not decorating the church for liturgical seasons and feasts heightens the awareness of the festive, solemn, or penitential nature of these seasons. Human minds and hearts are stimulated by the sounds, sights, and fragrances of liturgical seasons, which combine to create powerful, lasting impressions of the rich and abundant graces unique to each of the seasons.
Those “powerful, lasting” impressions are often well-communicated by local traditions of decorating. Each liturgical has its own definitive introduction (Wake up! Ashes or Jesus in the desert) from the Church’s texts and music. Decorations point the way, they are not the object of worship:
§ 124 § Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.
Decorate for seasons, not just the feasts:
§ 125 § These seasonal decorations are maintained throughout the entire liturgical season. Since the Christmas season begins with the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve and ends with the baptism of the Lord, the placement and removal of Christmas decorations should coincide with these times. Since the Easter season lasts fifty days, planning will encompass ways to sustain the decor until the fiftieth day of Pentecost.
Don’t forget the images of the saints as they are recognized during the liturgical year:
§ 126 § In the course of the liturgical year, the feasts and memorials of Our Lady and of saints with special significance for the parish afford opportunities to show devotion by adorning their images with tasteful floral arrangements or plants.
Images rather than words. It should go without saying, but it is said here anyway:
§ 127 § Fabric art in the form of processional banners and hangings can be an effective way to convey the spirit of liturgical seasons, especially through the use of color, shape, texture, and symbolic form. The use of images rather than words is more in keeping with this medium.
Objects which straddle the lines between decoration and devotion:
§ 128 § Objects such as the Advent wreath,(Book of Blessings 1512) the Christmas crib,(Book of Blessings 1544) and other traditional seasonal appointments proportioned to the size of the space and to the other furnishings can enhance the prayer and understanding of the parish community.
If objects of devotion, they should be of greater quality than the decorations. I remember one parish in which the Christmas “scene” was a miniature, but it included a reproduction of a modern church on one level and the Christmas scene on the other. It was rather artfully designed, not at all popsicle sticks and crayons. It was a parish tradition that worked. It seemed to represent two pieces of salvation history. The artistry drew people in, and the piece was deep enough to inspire reflection.
§ 129 § The use of living flowers and plants, rather than artificial greens, serves as a reminder of the gift of life God has given to the human community. Planning for plants and flowers should include not only the procurement and placement but also the continuing care needed to sustain living things.
Living plants evoke strong feelings. I’ve also worked with people who did wonders with artificial pieces. In one parish, living and artificial pieces were intermixed. Church decoration is not my personal forte. I’m pleased to serve in parishes where, for other people, it is. If I can communicate the basic thrust of what we try to accomplish with seasonal decorations, I try to place my trust in good people who have an eye for the beautiful, the decorative, and the appropriate.
All texts from Built of Living Stones are copyright © 2000, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.