Feasts, Fasts, and Feria: What is on the Altar?

By H. Boone Porter

In eucharistic worship, the altar or holy table is obviously the center of attention and whatever is placed upon it is very conspicuous. During the past 20 years, the free-standing altar, or holy table arranged for the priest to stand back of it facing the congregation, has been increasingly adopted in our churches. This makes the altar much more visible and the proper arrangement of things on it all the more important. 

At this time we will not discuss the cloths, candles, cross, or flowers, or the revival of the ancient practice of keeping the gospel-book on the altar. We will confine our attention to the service book and the essential vessels for the eucharistic elements. It is believed that the suggestions offered here may have some relevance in any situation, wut are especially pertinent when the priest stands back of the altar with the vessels between himself and the rest of the worshippers. 

The large prayer book or missal used by the priest is usually held up on a brass or wooden missal stand. This is suitable enough when the priest has his back to the congregation. They then see the pages of the open book. On the other hand, when the priest is back of the altar, the missal stand is reversed, and the congregation sees only the somewhat unsightly rear end of the stand. Many parishes are finding it better to revert to the old Anglican custom of using a small cushion to prop up the book. This can be designed and put together by members of the altar guild. It is suggested that before sewing it up they persuade the priest to use a loose bundle of cloth at several celebrations to determine what he finds to be the most convenient size and shape. The cushion can be covered with fine fabric and, if desired, be decorated with tassels. For the prayer of consecration, it does not matter whether the book is on the priest’s left or right: put it where it is most comfortable for him to read from. 

Of most importance are the eucharistic vessels. The paten and the bread on it usually cut a low profile. Priests trained to celebrate with their back to the people usually place the paten at the center of the altar, with the chalice directly behind it. When the priest is back of the altar, this arrangement puts the chalice directly in the people’s line of vision, so that all hope of their seeing the paten is gone. He cannot even clearly see the gesture when the priest lays his hand on the paten. We recommend that chalice and paten be placed beside each other, so that all gestures toward each will be clear and expressive. Some parishes are now securing larger, bowl-shaped patens (especially suitable for leaved bread) which are much more visible. Some, too, have gone back to the large Victorian paten which, in some cases, stood up on a base, like the base of a chalice. 

The chalice itself, from ancient Christian times, has been regarded as the most beautiful, significant, and sacred utensil on the altar. From the offertory through the distribution of communion, it should stand out with prominence and only be handled with the greatest dignity. Unless insects are present, the practice of constantly covering and uncovering the chalice with the pall is disconcerting. 

In recent years, the increasing number of people who communicate, and the proper desire of individuals to receive more perceptible portions of the sacred elements, have meant that the customary paten and chalice may not be adequate to hold enough bread or wine. In some places, two or three chalices are consecrated. In some churches, additional bread is in a ciborium. The latter term may refer to a vessel of various shapes. Often, however, it is simply a chalice with a lid on it. From where the congregation is, it is indistinguishable from the other chalice or chalices. Hence, at the words of institution, the people see the priest lay his hand on one chalice when the bread is referred to, and on another similar chalice (or chalices) when the cup is referred to. The language of symbolic gestures is thus reduced to nonsense. 

If the paten is not large enough for the amount of bread usually needed, a parish should plan to secure a visually appropriate vessel of larger size, bearing in mind that leavened bread will be increasingly used in the church in the decades ahead. If the chalice does not contain enough wine, a flagon or suitable pitcher should be used in addition, as Anglican rubrics have generally suggested. Such a vessel is visually self-explanatory. If two or more chalices are needed for administration to communicants, then the additional chalice or chalices can be filled from the flagon prior to the administration. Such chalices can be kept at the credence table until that time. 

But why this concern for visual clarity anyhow? The answer is simple. Sacraments, and sacramental liturgy, are intended to be expressive not only to the ear, but to the eye, and also to feeling, taste, and smell. It should not appear that Christian sacraments are consecrated by a priest withdrawing to a sanctuary, distending the sleeves of his vestments, and performing ceremonies known to him but kept secret from the congregation. The sacraments of the New Covenant are indeed mysteries, secrets which the world cannot understand. The church, on the other hand, is the community of those who do know, who have seen and heard. As the First Epistle of St. John says, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:4).

The Rev. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977-1990. This article was published in our November 6, 1977 article.

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