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Liturgy: Altar of Repose

And More on Exposition at Via Crucis

ROME, MARCH 16, 2005 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: What should be the atmosphere of the altar of repose for Maundy Thursday? Should it be an atmosphere of grandeur since the Lord instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood? Or should it be solemn, as we recall the Lord's agony in the garden?

Since the renovation in 1999, our tabernacle has been transferred to the side altar. Now it's not very visible as it is blocked away by huge pillars. I feel it has lost its significant especially during the Maundy Thursday's liturgy. Before, the priest transferred the Eucharist from the central tabernacle, which was behind the main altar, to the side altar. Now the Eucharist goes back into the same tabernacle on Holy Thursday as there isn't another suitable place for an altar of repose. As a designer, I feel I should do something to highlight the tabernacle for this special night.

Our new tabernacle now sits independently on an old altar at the side. Now the question is to decorate the altar of repose -- is it wrong to cover the entire tabernacle and the old altar with a huge piece of translucent white linen that touches the floor? The tabernacle, under the translucent veil, is still visible as it has a powerful light shining from within. This creates a very solemn look. The idea represents the Lord in his suffering state -- being submitted into human hands and is moving on into his passion and death. To me, that's a very powerful visual but some feel it's too abstract. Could you please comment? -- V.C., Singapore

A: The place of reposition should be as beautiful as possible and should be sufficiently prominent so as to allow for adoration, even by large groups, following the Mass of the Lord's Supper.

In 1988 the Holy See published "Paschales Solemnitatis," a "Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts."

No. 49 of this document refers to our topic: "For the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament, a place should be prepared and adorned in such a way as to be conducive to prayer and meditation, seriousness appropriate to the liturgy of these days is enjoined so that all abuses are avoided or suppressed.

"When the tabernacle is located in a chapel separated from the central part of the church, it is appropriate to prepare the place of repose and adoration there."

With respect to the last point I would say that if the abovementioned chapel is too small to accommodate the faithful who visit on Holy Thursday, then a separate place of reposition may be prepared.

The case you describe is not a separate chapel, but a separate altar and so, if possible, it would be more appropriate to prepare another place for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.

Should there be no other option, then the procession bringing the Eucharist to this tabernacle should at least take a longer route within the Church so as to give meaning to this rite.

The altar of repose need not be a real altar and is often a temporary structure. In some places it is customary to make the place of reposition resemble an altar while others prefer locating the tabernacle on a column to make it stand out more clearly.

If a spare tabernacle is not available, the norms permit the use of a closed ciborium, though constant supervision must be assured in order to avoid any danger of profanation. Exposition with a monstrance is never permitted on Holy Thursday.

The decoration of the altar of repose should be special, At least four or six candles or lamps, and preferably more, should burn around it and should be tastefully arranged with flowers, drapes, fine cloths, carpets and a judicious use of subdued electric lighting in order to create the necessary ambiance of silence and meditation.

In those countries where it is possible, wheat stalks and young olive trees may also be incorporated into the decoration in order to evoke the themes of Eucharist and the garden of Gethsemane.

"Paschales Solemnitatis," No. 55, reflecting the liturgical reform, specifies: "The place where the tabernacle or pyx is situated must not be made to resemble a tomb, and the expression 'tomb' is to be avoided. The chapel of repose is not prepared so as to represent the 'Lord's burial' but for the custody of the eucharistic bread that will be distributed in Communion on Good Friday."

Any crosses or images that might be behind the tabernacle should be concealed using curtains or drapes of white, gold or some similar hue so that nothing distracts from the tabernacle.

With respect to your specific point of having the tabernacle visible behind a translucent cloth, I think that it is not a good ...

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