Appointments of the altar are the items that go on the altar.
The principal appointment is the crucifix. The high altar’s crucifix is considered the primary and most important image in the church building and should not only be prominently visible but also of substantial size in proportion to the altar. The ideal location for the placement of the crucifix is on the altar itself, at the back of the mensa and centered with the structure. This is done to show the inseparable connection between the cross and the altar. In keeping with that thought, the image of our redemption must also depict Our Savior crucified to indicate the connection of the sacrifice of Calvary with that of the altar. If the ideal location for the placement of the crucifix is not practical due to the size of the altar or the presence of the tabernacle, then several placement options exist. One, have the crucifix hung above the altar often by chains from the canopy. Two, it could be attached by a pole to the rear of the altar. Three, the crucifix could be even affixed to the reredos behind the altar.
The next important appointment is the tabernacle. The rubrics actually prohibits the commonly seen placement of the altar cross in the permanent exposition throne or on top of the tabernacle. There are two reasons for this. One, an exposition throne is reserved to the Blessed Sacrament itself. Two, the tabernacle is the House for the Real Presence and not a support or storage place. Not even for the cross or even the monstrance. The tabernacle is attached to the altar to show the intimate connection between the Sacrifice and the Sacrament while conveniently enabling the distribution of Holy Communion as well as encouraging devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The word “tabernacle” comes from the Hebrew word for “tent” or the religious implication “the dwelling place of God” in reference to the portable tabernacle used by the Israelites while wandering in the desert for 40 years. Long ago, the tabernacle was often not reserved in a tabernacle on the altar, but either to the side of the church building or even in the sacristy in a locked wall cabinet called an “ambry”. The ambry can be seen in St. Clement’s Basilica in Rome, high up on the Epistle-side sanctuary wall, which warrants a ladder to reach the Blessed Sacrament. There were also the very beautifully carved Sacrament Towers in German speaking countries, which were usually adjoined to a church wall or pillar. There was also the custom of enclosing a consecrated Host in a “hanging pyx” with the remainder of the Hosts being reserved in the sacristy. The hanging pyx was suspended over the altar and was often made in the shape of a dove, which itself would be veiled. This practice of the hanging pyx was very popular in England and elsewhere on the European Continent before the Reformation. However, as this method of reservation was easily open to theft and desecration, the Roman Church had to prohibit this ancient practice due to the prevailing anti-Catholic sentiments of the post-Reformation period. During the later period of the Renaissance, it became the practice to reserve the Blessed Sacrament on the altar in a secured vessel, which became known as the tabernacle. In a parish church or oratory the tabernacle should be on the high altar in full view of the church’s main body. In keeping with the older tradition of Eucharistic reservation, in a cathedral, the tabernacle is situated on an altar within a special Blessed Sacrament chapel. In fact, this ancient practice of not having the Blessed Sacrament reserved at the high altar is still presumed by the rubrics for Solemn Mass as well as for pontifical ceremonies. This is why during the incensing of the altar, the incense are directed to the figure of Our Lord on the altar cross and not the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle.
Moving on to the candles or the illumination of the altar. The ritualistic use of candles in Christian worship is very ancient in origin as well as highly symbolic. The wax candles are made from beeswax which symbolizes Our Lord’s purity. The burning flame signifies Christ, the Light of the world. It is not required to use pure beeswax in the Roman Rite for the altar candles, nevertheless, liturgical law does prescribe that these candles must have a higher percentage of beeswax to other substances, such as paraffin. For example, here in the United States, the altar candles must be made with a minimum of 51 percent beeswax. The candlesticks that hold the wax candles may be made of any suitable material and should coincide with the style of the altar and crucifix. Long ago, it was common to graduate these candlesticks in height from the sides to the center of the altar. The candlesticks would be placed diagonally upwards towards the cross. However, the common practice today is to make the candlesticks of equal height. In each case though, the tops of the wax candles should not be higher than the traverse arm of the altar cross. The high altar should have a set of six matching candles while a side altar only requires two. You will also see a brass or glass device at the top of each altar candle called a “follower”. The follower literally follows down the candle as the wax burns away. Combined with the modern type of altar candle, the heavy follower not only dissipates the heat and prevents drips, it also helps the wax candle to burn evenly, and thereby more cleanly and economically. How many candles should be lit for Mass? For all types of sung Masses, six candles should be lit, whereas for a Low Mass, only two. However, four candles may be lite for the Low Mass of a bishop.
To learn more about Appointments of the Altar, listen to Learning about the Roman Liturgy with Louis Tofari on Magnificat Radio at www.magnificatmedia.com at 10am, 1pm, 6:30pm, and 10pm, CST, USA. To purchase books and materials mentioned on Learning about the Roman Liturgy with Louis Tofari visit this link: Romanitas Press
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