This is expressed in the Preface for Christmas, in these words which refer to Jesus: “In him we see our God made visible,” and the Preface goes on to express the desire that we may be drawn by “our God made visible” to the “contemplation and love of things unseen.” By means of signs, symbols and words in the liturgy, the mystery of God’s saving work in Christ is made present.
The Altar: The theology of the Eucharist as both sacrifice and meal finds clear expression in the paragraphs of the General Instruction relating to the altar. The altar on which the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs and through the instrumentality of the priest is also the Lord’s table which the faithful are invited to share when they gather together in His name. Consequently, every church is to have a single fixed and dedicated altar (GIRM 299, 303) which “signifies to the assembly of the faithful the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church” (GIRM 303). According to the Church’s traditional practice and the altar’s symbolism, the table of a fixed altar should be of stone. In the dioceses of the United States, however, wood which is worthy, solid and well-crafted may also be used (GIRM 303, USA Adaptations). Nothing should be placed upon the altar except what is required for Mass (GIRM 306). Even flowers are not to be placed on top of the altar but may be arranged around it (GIRM 305). During Lent, the use of flowers is prohibited, except on Laetare Sunday (the Fourth Sunday of Lent), solemnities and feasts. During Advent, a certain moderation in the decoration of an altar should also be exercised (GIRM 305). Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and the banquet which gives us His Body and Blood, at least one white cloth should be placed on the altar where this memorial is celebrated. In the dioceses of the U.S., cloths of other colors may be used, but the top cloth should always be white (GIRM 304, USA Adaptations).
The Altar Cross: The revised General Instruction speaks always of “a cross with the figure of Christ crucified upon it” (GIRM 308, 122). This cross, “positioned either on the altar or near it,” should be visible not only during the liturgy, but at all times, recalling “for the faithful the saving passion of the Lord, [and] remain[ing] near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations” (GIRM 308).
The Ambo: The dignity of the Word of God requires that the church have a place that is suitable for the proclamation of the Word and is a natural focal point for the faithful during the Liturgy of the Word. As a rule, the ambo should be stationary, not simply a moveable stand (GIRM 309). The Scripture readings, responsorial psalm and the Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) are proclaimed only from the ambo; it may also be used for the homily and the General Intercessions (Prayer of the Faithful).
The Tabernacle: Because the Lord Jesus remains present under the Eucharistic species reserved in the tabernacle, the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal recalls that the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is noble, worthy, conspicuous, well-decorated and suitable for prayer (GIRM 314). In every church, there should be only one tabernacle, immovable, made of solid and unbreakable material, not transparent and locked in order to avoid the danger of desecration. The tabernacle may be located “either in the sanctuary, apart from the altar of celebration, in the most suitable form and place…; or even in another chapel suitable for adoration and the private prayer of the faithful, and which is integrally connected with the church and is conspicuous to the faithful” (GIRM 315). Near the tabernacle, a lamp is to burn continuously, providing both an indication of the presence of Christ and honoring that presence.
Sacred Images: Sacred images of “the Lord, the Virgin Mary, and the saints” are “displayed in sacred buildings for the veneration of the faithful, and may be so arranged that they guide the faithful to the mysteries of the faith which are celebrated there” (GIRM 318). By venerating the memory of the saints, the Church hopes to share in their blessedness in heaven. The placement of sacred images in a church should not distract the faithful from the celebration and “as a rule” there should be only one image of a given saint (GIRM 318).
Incense: To burn incense is a beautiful and symbolic act of worship. The use of incense is explained at length in the General Instruction. “Incensation is an expression of reverence and prayer as signified in the Sacred Scriptures [cf. Ps. 140:2; Rev. 8:3]” (GIRM 276). After placing incense in the censer, the priest blesses the incense silently with a sign of the cross (GIRM 277) and makes a profound bow before incensing a person or thing (GIRM 277). Incense may be used at the beginning of the Mass, at the proclamation of the Gospel, at the Presentation of the Gifts, and at the consecration and elevation of the Host and the chalice containing the Precious Blood.
Silence: The General Instruction recommends that “even before the celebration itself, it is praiseworthy for silence to be observed in church, in the sacristy and adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves for the sacred rites which are to be enacted in a devout and fitting manner” (GIRM 45). The General Instruction also recommends brief moments of silence throughout the liturgy: at the Penitential Rite and after the invitation to pray, after Communion, and especially after the readings and the homily, so that the word of God “may be taken into the heart by the fostering of the Holy Spirit” (GIRM 56).
By means of these signs and symbols, and many others as well, God speaks to us in the liturgy, and we ourselves in return offer worship to Him. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the visible signs employed in the liturgy aid us in becoming ever more conscious of the saving and sanctifying action of Christ made present in our midst whenever His Church gathers to celebrate the divine mysteries.
(Fr. deLadurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, Virginia. This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)