Thursday, December 10, 2009


Those of you whose church buildings predate Vatican II and further where there has not been too much reconstruction in the sanctuary area will notice where the old high altar is/was there are three steps leading up to it (usually.) Though not strictly necessary it was a useful symbolically in the celebration of the Mass. This can be seen at St. Sebastian where the altar of repose is.

A few years ago when we began to talk about symbolism we noted that that which is most important is traditionally placed center, high, and large. Hence the big brouhaha when many parishes moved their tabernacles to the side, low, and hidden if not out of the sanctuary area altogether. So of course there was a natural resistance among many Catholics to this symbolic move. What was attempted to be said and what symbolically appeared to be said were often two different things.

What these three steps, called a predella, did was to raise the altar to the central focal point of the church. It helped represent (according to early Church Fathers) the mediating powers between heaven and earth. We marked how structural aspects of a church that were straight lined represented things of the earth and how circular lines represented things of heaven and how these were held in tension over the altar. The altar was then covered with a baldachino or tester, and lastly, at the center of all this where the most fantastic miracle takes place the altar is held aloft by these three steps; three always a symbolically significant number.

During a Solemn High Mass the Eucharist would of course be on the altar, on the top step the celebrating priest, on the next step down the deacon, and on the third step the second deacon. It was a grand whoosh of focus to that center of the universe that is Jesus Christ and through Him and in the power of the Holy Spirit to God our Father.

Much of this symbolism has been greatly simplified. At times it has been simplified too much where lines between sanctuary and floor have been erased as well as the difference between altar and table in an effort, I suppose, to make God more accessible – but more often than not some semblance of demarcation have been retained though strictly speaking it would not be wrong to reestablish some of the symbolic tools of the past in a time when the understanding of the Mass and what (or rather Who!) the Eucharist is has been lost.


Anonymous said...

The cathedral here has an old high altar (fixed) that is now used to hold plants etc. It is beautiful and made of marble. The new one is wooden and, plain.
The worst idea I have ever seen though is the altar in the middle of the congregation with a movable platform. Twirl it around for total participation. Totally confusing.

Adoro said...

I have also read that the three steps to the altar signify the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

My home parish has 2 steps. (It's actually a really really ugly huge modern church...totally bereft of any symbolism. Except for the stained glass on one side)

Cracked Pot said...

Those of us who speak of the "holy sacrifice of the Mass" tend to say "altar," while those who emphazise the communal meal prefer to speak of the "table." Those of us who speak of "sacrifice" prefer to see the altar with linens (like a table!). Those who focus on the "meal" aspect prefer an almost barren altar. Go figure.

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