What Is The Altar Of Repose?

by History of the Church, Lent

One day each year – and one day only – there is no Catholic Mass celebrated throughout the world. One day. 

The Easter Triduum begins with Holy Thursday Mass. What many Catholics don’t realize is that Good Friday service not a Mass, but a liturgy, as no hosts are consecrated during the celebration of the Lord’s Passion. Good Friday is the only day in the entire year that no Catholic church worldwide offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Where do the hosts come from that the faithful receive on Good Friday? 

“Why is this night different from every other night?” Hebrew children ask that question at the celebration of Passover, but it could easily describe the Holy Thursday Mass, the last before the Easter Vigil. Holy Thursday Mass recalls the Last Supper – Jesus and his disciples honoring the Passover tradition – with the optional Washing of the Feet. During this Mass, the priest consecrates additional hosts for the next day’s service. Rather than ending with the traditional “Go in peace” and closing hymn, this Mass ends in a unique way. 

“It is important to note what exactly it is that is going to be celebrated, and what this Mass begins, namely the liturgical season of the Triduum,” said Father Spenser St. Louis, a priest of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana. “But what can often go unnoticed among those who attend the liturgies of those days (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday) is that each of these have a unique ending/opening because it is meant to be one continuous liturgy.”

Not continuous in terms of earthly time; “rather that we recognize the solemnity of the season we are celebrating as the pinnacle of the year, and thus our hearts are called to remain with the Lord from one celebration to the next.” 

Those additional hosts that have been consecrated are therefore placed in a ciborium. The priest, followed by those present, then processes with the consecrated hosts to a prepared space called the “altar of repose.” Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year by Msgr. Peter J. Elliott states that the altar of repose can be farther from the church proper to allow for a longer, more significant procession and should be set apart from the sanctuary to denote a movement, signifying Jesus and His disciples traveling to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. During this procession, a Eucharistic hymn is typically sung. 

What is the altar of repose?

“Repose” means rest, so the altar of repose implies that this space has been set aside as a resting place for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, but also for those who choose to keep watch with Him. The altar of repose is separate from the main altar, often a side altar in the church, an adoration chapel or even an entirely different (secular) space dedicated specifically for that purpose on that night. It doesn’t need to be a permanent altar, though it should be made to resemble one, with a tabernacle that will remain open during the specified hours of adoration or a veiled ciborium. 

The altar of repose is typically decorated in a manner fitting the King of Kings. Father St. Louis takes great pride in decorating his parish’s altar of repose to make it a sacred, prayerful place for worshippers to spend time with Jesus on the night before the memorial of His Passion. He explains that since it is to be made up like the altar itself, it is proper to drape it with linen altar cloths – linen is preferred in part because Jesus was wrapped in linen burial shrouds. 

Just like at Mass, candles are essential altar decorations, as Jesus was and remains the Light of the World. There is no set number that should be used, but Father St. Louis quotes Msgr. Elliott as saying that at least four or six, if not more, should be placed on the altar. Many parishes also adorn their altars with flowers, which, according to Msgr. Elliott, is proper. Any crucifixes or sacred art, however, should be veiled in white cloth, leaving the tabernacle as the focal point.

Seven Churches Tradition

An old tradition dates back to the 1500s where St. Philip Neri instituted a practice in Rome in which he took groups of pilgrims to visit seven basilicas in the city in remembrance of Christ’s Passion. At each of these seven churches, pilgrims focus on seven steps of Jesus’ journey to the cross: the garden of Gethsemane (1), Jesus before Annas (2), Caiaphas (3), Pilate (4), Herod (5), Pilate again (6) and His crucifixion and death (7). 

Today, this devotion is making a comeback among Catholics in the U.S. and elsewhere. Pilgrims can make this devotion within their local community, provided they are in close enough proximity to seven churches. Each church sets its own hours for adoration after the Holy Thursday Mass, and some churches host adoration as late as midnight or even the next day if they have a dedicated place and people to keep watch with the Lord all through the night so that the faithful can undertake this devotion. Anyone who wants to “church hop” can begin with Mass at one parish, then travel to six other churches and reflect on the coordinating Scripture passages or simply spend time in prayer at each. 

In his years studying in Rome, Father St. Louis engaged in this practice, where one particular church greatly inspired him: Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini. “Their altar of repose was simply breathtaking, and was the inspiration for each of the altars of repose that I have had a hand in preparing since returning to the diocese.” 

Adorning the altar of repose with dozens upon dozens of candles as the aforementioned church does may seem excessive, “but all it takes is one moment, one aspect of beauty to capture a soul, and the altar of repose is certainly a time where you can enter into it with great ease, and a semi-low budget,” said Father St. Louis.

At some of the churches a person can visit, depending on the predominant culture of the parish, worshippers might sing songs of praise, chants or recite the rosary in their native language. The darkness, the quiet – or the sacred music – and the glowing candlelight lend the space a holy, beautiful feeling of hushed expectation, preparing for the mystery yet to follow.

The continuation of Holy Thursday Mass can be seen on Good Friday when the servers and priest process into church in silence and with no opening collect. Those who have received Holy Orders then lie prostrate before the bare altar. “So, the great nugget that is often overlooked is the fact that these liturgies are meant to be entered into together, and not piecemeal,” Father St. Louis continued. “They are intended for the faithful to attend all three liturgies, to be seen in unison with one another.”

The sacredness of Holy Thursday cannot be understated. Father St. Louis treasures this solemn day. He said, “The evening of Holy Thursday is one of great importance in the life of the Church, but especially for me as a priest. It is the celebration of the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper. It is the beginning of the most solemn season of the liturgical year, and it is our invitation into the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. … In that Mass we [priests] are given the great grace to walk with our Lord as He begins His Passion, offering up His life for us. We are given the opportunity to pray with Him in the garden, to keep watch with Him.”

He concluded by speaking about the impact a well-composed altar of repose could have on those who view it. “Beauty is one of the ways that God invites us into Himself, to captivate the mind and enthrall the soul, and the liturgies of the Triduum are perfect opportunities to do just that, to provide beauty in liturgy that provides us the means to entering into the Paschal Mystery.”

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Image: By Judgefloro – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32257608

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