|ROME, 15 MARCH 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?
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
"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
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 option as the
point of the place of reposition is to emphasize the tabernacle on this
night. If it is not possible to move the tabernacle, then I am sure that
a creative rearrangement of the cloths is possible.
"Paschales Solemnitatis," No. 56, briefly evokes the prevailing
atmosphere for the adoration before the altar of repose: "After the Mass
of the Lord's Supper the faithful should be encouraged to spend a
suitable period of time during the night in the church in adoration
before the Blessed Sacrament which has been solemnly reserved. Where
appropriate, this prolonged Eucharistic adoration may be accompanied by
the reading of some part of the Gospel of St. John (chapters 13-17).
"From midnight onwards, however, the adoration should be made without
external solemnity, because the day of the Lord's passion has begun."
Thus the ambience should be meditative and silent. Even special
activities organized for young people should strive to respect this
spiritual climate, interspersing silence, brief readings, commentary and
one or two meditative hymns or chants relating to the mystery being
* * *
Follow-up: Altar of Repose [04-05-2005]
Two inquiries touched on the March 15 column regarding the altar of
A woman religious writing from Kenya asks: "Though the answer mentions
that after the midnight of Maundy Thursday there should be no solemnity
with regard the altar of repose, there is no clear indication that our
attention should also focus on the reading and meditation on the Passion
of Our Lord. There are 364 days of the year in which we ought to give
due prayerful attention to the Eucharistic mystery. And this reaches the
climax on Maundy Thursday. But then could it not be explicitly stated
that after the midnight of Maundy Thursday our entire attention should
be on the Passion of Our Lord and thus also helping in the better
understanding of the term altar of repose?"
The question turns on what is meant by "no solemnity" after midnight on
Holy or Maundy Thursday (Maundy is probably derived from the Latin
antiphon "Mandatum Novum," or New Commandment, which was sung during the
Washing of Feet).
The lack of solemnity effectively means that after Midnight Good Friday
has begun, attention should be turned toward the Lord's Passion.
Therefore, public prayers should not be organized at the altar of repose
after this time and in some places the number of lighted candles is
Likewise, if the Divine Office is prayed in church on Good Friday it
should be celebrated in the main body of the building, not at the altar
It does not preclude however, any traditional private devotions and
visits to the tabernacle nor, strictly speaking, would it exclude
organizing turns of adoration to accompany the tabernacle, especially in
those places where it is traditional to leave the church open all night
or where the circumstances make it necessary to always have someone
present to prevent profanation.
Certainly, even in such private visits, attention should be centered
more on the mystery of the Passion than on the Eucharistic mystery.
Before the liturgical celebration of the Passion begins, all but the two
candles to be brought to the altar for Communion should be extinguished
and any electric lighting turned off.
Another correspondent, writing from the Fiji Islands, asks: "What ought
to be the practice regarding an 'altar of repose' from Holy Thursday
until Easter at chapels (e.g., convent chapels or small mission
churches) that are not having Holy Week services?"
According to the Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and
Celebration of the Easter Feasts, "Paschales Solemnitatis," No. 54:
"After the post-Communion prayer, the procession forms, with the
crossbar at its head. The Blessed Sacrament, accompanied by lighted
candles and incense, is carried through the church to the place of
reservation, to the singing of the hymn 'Pange lingua' or some other
eucharistic song. This rite of transfer of the Blessed Sacrament may not
be carried out if the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion will not be
celebrated in that same church on the following day."
Thus, chapels that do not have Holy Week services do not set up an altar
On Holy Thursday afternoon the Eucharist should be removed from the
tabernacle and locked away in a dignified and secure place until Easter
Sunday. A lamp should be lit in the room, but no public veneration or
visits are allowed.
For this reason No. 43 of the above-mentioned document says:
"It is fitting that small religious communities both clerical and lay,
and other lay groups should participate in the celebration of the Easter
Triduum in neighboring principal churches.
"Similarly where the number of participants and ministers is so small
that the celebrations of the Easter Triduum cannot be carried out with
the requisite solemnity, such groups of the faithful should assemble in
a larger church.
"Also where there are small parishes with only one priest, it is
recommended that such parishes should assemble, as far as possible, in a
principal church and there participate in the celebrations.
"According to the needs of the faithful, where a pastor has the
responsibility for two or more parishes in which the faithful assemble
in large numbers, and where the celebrations can be carried out with the
requisite care and solemnity, the celebrations of the Easter Triduum may
be repeated in accord with the given norms." ZE05040521