Wednesday, November 13, 2013


The first determination if you are going to decorate a sanctuary is not, “is it pretty?” but rather, “is it liturgically fitting.”  It may be that a blue altar clothe would be smashing with the Easter lilies rather than white flowers against a white altar clothe, but there is no excuse for blue as an altar clothe in the Easter season.  It will then cease to have liturgical meaning and simply become eye candy.  That is Okay for the Easter banquet, not the Mass.  It will have to be back to the drawing board. 
Though much of the language is loss to moderns, flowers have a very deep symbolic language.  We still know some of them, lilies, as stated above, are associated with the resurrection while poinsettias are strictly Christmas.  Keeping them in their liturgical season can be very helpful.  For the savvy person who is decorating, there is a year (or years) long attack plan in decorating.  I will admit to being a little overly scrupulous in this regard.  But even if nobody else gets it, I do.  But I do hope that it makes a difference in people’s experience of parish life even if on a subconscious level.
For example, the day that the Christmas season is over every poinsettia is removed from the church.  “Adopt a plant and take it home or its going out into the cold.”  There are places that will leave their seasonal plants up because they still look nice.  Why waste the money?  Right?  This I understand.  But I want someone to walk into this parish and say, “Guess that’s over.  We must be in another season.”


Having a yearlong idea of what might work saves the person who decorates from having to overcompensate for not having planned how transition seasons.  Because there may not be much of a change from ordinary time to the Lenten season for example, rather than un-decorating for Lent, parishes decorate like mad to let us know that we are in a time of desolation.  So sanctuaries are strewn with dead branches, cinderblocks, barbwire, giant purple banners, and sand (just to name a few) to help us experience bareness. 

Only the laundress knows just how peculiar I am in this regard - reaching even to the type of shirt I wear to Sunday Mass.  (I doubt anybody notices, but it puts me in a right mind.)  When we hit this coming advent, I will wear an ordinary, standard black clerical shirt under my robes.  When we hit Christmas, I will switch to the more formal white.  The following ordinary time (this is where I might need some psychological help) I change back to black but half way through change to white so that when we hit lent, I can make the change back to black.  (I never admitted this to a soul before.)
Sometimes people do pick up things that I think nobody will.  Often it is teenagers interestingly enough.  During most of the year, at the elevation, I will “piece together” the host before saying, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  In lent and advent I’ll the broken half host giving a different look and feel.  Doing it either way is neither right nor wrong, but it can be made to signal something.
All this is to go to say the first question is not, “Wouldn’t it be pretty if . . .” but rather, “How would doing “X” tie in to the liturgical life of the parish?”


Nan said...

Poinsettia adoption day is but one event on the unofficial liturgical calendar of my parish. I don't like the giant banners. We have giant plain banners in the sanctuary with the greenery and I don't think it's at all necessary; there are also giant matching banners way in the back of the Church that just hang there and annoy me. I think that's their purpose.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Father. This hits on something that really bothers me, and I agree with everything you have pointed out about decorating the altar.

I am a member of a parish with a remarkably architecturally beautiful church, built in 1905. Even with no flowers or anything added to the usual candles, the altar and the entire church is stunning and deeply spiritual.

For reasons I do not understand, the flower brigade regularly uses silk or plastic flowers (which I understand is a no-no per whatever "rulebook" the Diocese or Church at large uses), and adds the things you pointed out such as dead twigs, banners, and knick-knacks, etc. Even if the altar was bare, it would still be fabulous. I really appreciate the Nativity at Christmas, the Advent Wreath, and seasonal live flowers, but the rest makes the altar seem cluttered, distracting and tacky.

Thank you for letting me vent. I know I sound cranky and uncharitable (*sigh* - I just went to Confession yesterday!), but I actually love my parish and parishioners, even the flower brigade, as well as the pastor and priests with whom we are blessed!

A Cluster Neighbor

MaryofSharon said...

The fact that your theatrical background is a great asset to the Church is evident in this post. The more you help the faithful "get" all this stuff that you know that most of us have no clue about, the better! Those of us who have read your blog over the years can never look at Church architecture, stained glass windows, the shape of a baptismal font, candles, the hand gestures of a priest, and now even his shirt, the same way again. Every time you tell us of he spiritual significance of these things we are richer for it.

(So tell me, is there a significance to the bright red shirt, with sleeves peeking out and vibrantly contrasting with the green vestment, worn by the priest at a weekday Mass I attended recently?)

Anonymous said...

Hi Father,

I normally agree with you and I love your blog, but you got me perplexed by this comment:

You said "I want someone to walk into this parish and say, “Guess that’s over. We must be in another season."

But the day after Christmas is not another liturgical season. We keep our poinsettias at least until the Epiphany as a reminder that we are still in the Christmas season.

Fr. V said...


You are right. Christmas is a season. The day after the Christmas (season) is over we take down our poinsettias.

Thanks for the clarification.

God bless,

Fr. V