Candles and crucifix

Why are some churches putting lighted candles and a crucifix on the altar now?

Because it was never prohibited. They were removed by the post-Vatican II liturgical innovators. Some places seem to be returning to what was the Church’s practice for hundreds of years. The Holy Father himself is providing a lead example in this return to conventional Catholic practice.

All Catholic churches have lighted candles and a cross/crucifix on or near the altar, in the sanctuary, during the celebration of Mass and other services. At least they are supposed to; I have yet to encounter a Catholic church that did not.

Often the altar cross is prominently displayed upon on the wall behind the altar, or suspended from the ceiling above it, or displayed on the original (pre-Vatican II) altar, or it doubles as a processional cross. The candlesticks are often displayed on top of the altar, or just as often on the floor, in front of, behind, along side of, or at the four corners of the altar.

I have a feeling, however, that you belong to a parish which has suddenly decorated its main altar with six candlesticks, three on each side, and a crucifix in the center. Before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, that was the prescription for all main altars. Of course, before Vatican II, Mass was celebrated facing the altar, and the altar was typically against a wall, or had a high reredos behind it (you couldn’t say Mass from the other side). Because the priest faced the liturgical East, and not the congregation, this typical arrangement of candles and crosses posed no issue.

Once the table-style altars were introduced, however, so that celebrants could say Mass facing the people, it was felt that the typical candle arrangement was not appropriate as it obstructed both the celebrant’s view of the congregation, and the congregation’s view of the celebrant.

Fast-forward past the 70s, 80s, and 90s to the end of the reign of Pope John Paul II and the beginning of the reign of Pope Benedict XVI where a consensus has begun to form concerning the need to “reform the liturgical reform” and to reaquaint the Church with the concept of the liturgical East. Some priests and bishops here and there are returning to the use of their church’s original (pre-Vatican II) altar to celebrate Mass authentically ad orientem (facing East). Some ad orientem celebrants, whose churches were built after 1970, have only the “new” table altar, and so they’re simply standing on the other side of it now, and placing the candles and cross on top of it.

While this return to the idea of facing the liturgical East is an idea that is being encouraged, today, it has not yet caught on universally, by any means. There are some priests who actually embrace the idea but who remain reluctant to “turn their backs” on the congregation in order to face East. It would be too jarring for many modern Catholics, many of whom just wouldn’t understand no matter how well you tried to explain it. Some such priests, however, have decided to try facing the liturgical East and the congregation, simultaneously, by putting the altar cross in the center of the altar–and the candles on either side of it–in the “old” fashion. This facing of the crucifix by the celebrant is regarded as something of a facing of the liturgical East, even though he faces the congregation.

True, it’s always been required to have at least two candles on the altar, and a crucifix in the sanctuary. Not all churches have abided by these requirements, of course.

Pre-Vatican-2, I believe the requirement was for a minimum of six candles? And a crucifix ON the altar? Someone correct me if I’m wrong. And some, out of new-found love of tradition, are tending to revert to this.

I like the idea of having a crucifix ON the altar - I’m sure it helps remind the priest (and the congregation) that he is offering the sacrifice of Calvary in offering the Mass, and that Christ, rather than himself or the congregation, should be the focal point.

What is the Liturgical East (just facing east) and why would it matter?

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the typical arrangement for the High Altar involved six candlesticks, usually placed on gradines, with three each on either side of the tabernacle. When Low Mass was said instead of a sung Mass, two more candlesticks were brought to the altar and lit instead of the six permanent candlesticks. Oftentimes the two Low Mass candlesticks were just left on the altar all the time, but only out of laziness or liturgical laxity.

In some churches, altars had riddle posts, each with a candle that was lit at the beginning of the Canon and extinguished at the Last Ablution. In very old practice, altars without riddle posts, a candle called the “Sanctus Candle” was lit instead. The “Sanctus Candle” was placed on the Epistle side of the altar, either in a wall sconce, or on a special stand or table. Some churches whose altars did not have riddel posts had “Standard Lights” instead (for the same purpose), two on either side of the altar, either in sconces or in tall, floor candlesticks.

An excerpt from the book Candles in the Roman Rite (1934) by Edwin Ryan tells me something I would not have guessed about candles placed on the altar, namely, that the practice is a 16th century innovation! The supposedly “modern” practice of candles placed near the altar, but not directly on it, is actually more traditional:

The custom of placing candles on the altar is recent. It has not been traced back further than the sixteenth century. Before that the candles were placed near the altar but never on it…

Who ever would have guessed it?

Sorry for the lengthy reply, but a question about liturgical direction deserves a thorough answer.


Perhaps the most commonly misunderstood element of liturgical worship in the Ordinary Form of Roman Rite – second only to the use of Latin – is the direction that the priest faces during the Mass. If you are familiar with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, you are well aware that for the majority of the Mass, the priest is not facing toward the people, but away from them. This orientation has been described in numerous ways, some of which are inaccurate and misleading: some say the priest has his back to the people (or worse, has turned his back on the people) or that he is facing the wall, others that he is facing the altar or the tabernacle.

First, if the priest “has his back to the people,” then the same must be said of all the people in the church (except those sitting in the back), but I know of no one who takes offense at the fact that the people sitting in front of him are not looking at him. Just because the priest is not facing the people does not mean he is being rude or is ignoring them. Those who see the gesture as the priest “turning his back on the people” are simply deriving the wrong symbolism, one of moral injustice, from this posture. Second, if the priest is “facing the wall,” then the same should be said of the whole congregation. Yes, the congregation is also facing the priest and the altar, but they are facing the wall beyond the priest and altar as well. Third, many modern churches are built such that when the priest is “facing the altar” he is also facing the people, so this description is not very specific. Fourth, the tabernacle is not necessarily on or behind the altar, so the priest is not necessarily facing it; and once more, the tabernacle should not be the focus of the priest’s attention at Mass. (cf. Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, p. 139)

All these descriptions focus on the wrong center of attention. What is the proper center of attention during the Mass? The Mass is a prayer to God; the “direction of the Eucharist [is] from Christ in the Holy Spirit to the Father.” (Feast of Faith, p. 140; cf. Catechism 1073) This means that liturgy should be directed spiritually ad Deum, that is, “toward God.” Ancient Christian tradition has manifested this spiritual orientation[2] by facing ad orientem, to the east (whereas Jewish worship faces Jerusalem).

Why the east? As they say in real estate: location, location, location! The east is the direction of the rising sun, which is a biblical (not pagan) symbol of Christ; thus, the east is associated with His Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension, and Second Coming.

The Incarnation

God is often identified with light in both the Old and New Testaments: the psalmist calls God “a sun and shield” (Ps. 84:11) and St. John says that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) So too Christ is likened to light and the sun, especially in His Incarnation, the first coming.

St. Jerome, in his commentary on the book of the prophet Ezekiel, saw the east gate of the Temple in Ezekiel’s vision as a sign of the Virgin Mary’s womb. Ezekiel saw that “the glory of the God of Israel came from the east” (Ezek. 43:2) and that “no one shall enter by it” except the Lord. (Ezek. 44:2)[3] This Scripture was interpreted as a prophecy of the Incarnation, so its association with the east is particularly important.

The prophet Isaiah foretold a time when a child would be born who be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6) and who would sit on the throne of David and have a never-ending kingdom. Of that day Isaiah said “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isa. 9:2) St. Matthew tells us that this was fulfilled by Jesus’ preaching throughout the regions of Zebulun and Napthali. (cf. Matt. 4:12-16; Isa. 9:1)

The prophet Malachi foretold that the “sun of righteousness” would rise. (Mal. 4:2) The Advent hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”[4]also invokes Christ as the Oriens, the “Day-Spring” or dawn. The Canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79), which the father of St. John the Baptist proclaimed upon the birth of his son, ends by describing God’s mercy being manifested as “the dawn oriens] from on high” that would “shine on those who dwell in darkness,” alluding to the Incarnation.

Finally, St. John the Evangelist refers to Jesus as the “light” in the prologue of his gospel (cf. John 1:4-9), and Jesus spoke of Himself in the same way. (cf. John 8:12; 9:5; 12:46)

[1] This section is greatly inspired by two essays by Cardinal Ratzinger: “Eastward- or Westward-Facing Position? A Correction” (in Feast of Faith, pp. 139-145) and “The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer” (in The Spirit of the Liturgy, pp. 74-84).

[2] The word “orientation” comes from the Latin oriens, meaning “the east; sunrise,” which in turn comes from the verb orior, meaning “to rise.”

[3] That this gate “shall remain shut” was seen by many early Church writers (e.g. Tertullian, Methodius, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, John of Damascus) as a prophecy of Mary’s perpetual virginity, that she bore no other children besides Jesus.

[4] This hymn comes from the “O Antiphons,” the antiphons for the Magnificat prayed during the Liturgy of the Hours on the seven evenings concluding Advent, the season in which the Church celebrates the first coming of Christ and anticipates His second coming.

[part 2 of response]
The Resurrection

Christ’s crucifixion can be associated with the setting of the sun: the sun was darkened (cf. Luke 23:45), Golgotha is on the west side of Jerusalem, and Jesus was buried in the evening. (cf. Matt. 27:57)

But the Church finds in the rising sun (the oriens, the east) a natural symbol of the Resurrection. (cf. Feast of Faith, p. 140) Jesus rose from the dead at or just before sunrise. (cf. Luke 24:1; John 20:1) His Apostles captured a glimpse of His resurrected glory at His transfiguration when “his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” (Matt. 17:2) St. Paul quotes an early Christian baptismal hymn in his letter to the Ephesians: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” (Eph. 5:14)

The Ascension

St. Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles that Jesus ascended into Heaven from the Mount of Olives (cf. Acts 1:9-12), which was located to the east of Jerusalem. The Roman liturgy associates Psalm 67:33-34 with the Solemnity of the Ascension; the Latin Vulgate reads “*psallite Deo qui ascendit super caelum caeli *ad orientem,” which the Douay-Rheims Bible renders as “Sing ye to God Who mounteth above the heaven of heavens, to the east.”

The Second Coming

The Church saw the oriens not only as a symbol of the Resurrection, but also of “a presentation of the hope of the parousia,” the second coming of Christ. Indeed, “every Mass is an approach to the return of Christ.” (Feast of Faith, pp. 140-141)

The angels at the Ascension told the Apostles that Jesus “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) Jesus prophesied His return from the east: “as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.” (Matt. 24:27) When Jesus returns, His appearance will probably be like that seen by St. John as recorded in the book of Revelation: “his face was like the sun shining in full strength.” (Rev. 1:16) In the heavenly Temple, Jesus is the lamp. (cf. Rev. 21:23; 22:5)

The East and the Cross

St. John also saw “another angel ascend from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God.” (Rev. 7:2) The seal of God is believed to be the sign of the Son of Man, which is the cross. (cf. Ezek. 9:4; Rev. 7:2-3)[5]

The early Christians marked the eastern wall of their meeting-houses with a cross first as a sign of hope for Christ’s return and only later as a reminder of His Passion. (cf. Feast of Faith, p. 141) This tradition was the origin of the rubric, still present in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, which required there to be a crucifix on the altar, so that Mass would be celebrated not only facing east, but also facing the cross. In the Ordinary Form of the Mass, a crucifix is still required, but it can be near the altar if not on it. (cf. GIRM 117)

The east, the oriens, signifies the whole Christian concept of time: the Lord is “the rising sun of history.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 84) So while it is not proper to say that the Eucharist is celebrated facing the tabernacle or even facing the altar, it can be said that the Eucharist is celebrated “facing the image of the cross, which embodied in itself the whole theology the oriens.” (Feast of Faith, p. 141)

[5] This link is described in Praying the Mass: The Prayers of the People, Chapter 2.

[part 3 of response]

Historical Continuity

The Church, in both the east and west, has traditionally prayed facing the east.[6] If you attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy, you will see that the priest prays the majority of the anaphora (the Eucharistic Prayer) facing the east, probably behind an iconostasis (a screen with doors decorated with icons of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and other saints and angels). The priest will from time to time turn to speak to face the congregation to speak to them; this happens in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass as well.

Eastward posture is the traditional posture of the Latin Church as well, although changes started occurring in the middle of the twentieth century, even before the Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy said nothing about “turning altars around.” Still, the practice of priests celebrating Mass “facing the people” (versus populum) – standing on “the other side” of the altar – became more and more prevalent so quickly that it became the perceived norm, to the point where Mass celebrated ad orientem seemed to be incompatible with the Ordinary Form. However, as Pope Benedict XVI has shown by his example, the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite can be celebrated ad orientem; in fact, the Roman Missal anticipates that the priest will be celebrating Mass in this manner because on several occasions its rubrics[7] instruct him to face the people or the altar, instructions that are redundant if those two directions are always the same.[8]

An unfortunate “Latinization” of the Eastern Rites, by which they adopted traditions and characteristics particular to the Latin Rite (often at the expense of their own), has occurred at times during the Church’s history. In 1996, the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches put out a document on Eastern liturgical worship, Pater Incomprehensibilis (PI). The document praises the “the inalienable value of the particular heritage of the Eastern Churches” (PI 7) and stresses the need for preserving the Eastern liturgical traditions. One such tradition, prayer facing east, was being endangered by “a new and recent Latin influence” (PI 107) that spread in the years following the Second Vatican Council. After quoting St. John of Damascus at length (who provided numerous proofs from Scripture of God’s hallowing of the east[9]) and addressing that the priest is “guiding the people in pilgrimage toward the Kingdom” rather than has his “back turned to the people,” the document calls for the retention and safeguarding of prayer facing east as “truly coherent with the Eastern liturgical spirituality” and having “profound value.” (Ibid.)

The Cross as East

 Pope Benedict XVI, both before his election to the papacy and after, has suggested an alternative approach to facing east:  “the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith.” (*The Spirit of the Liturgy*, p. 83)

 Because the Liturgy of the Eucharist is not about a dialogue between the priest and the congregation, but between the whole church and God, the cross can serve as a focus point when the priest and the congregation face each other:  because the cross can be placed *on* the altar, rather than just near it, it serves to distinguish the Liturgy of the Word from the Liturgy of the Eucharist. (cf. *Feast of Faith*, p. 145)  This arrangement of the altar is used at most of Pope Benedict’s Masses.

 An objection to this is that the cross can be regarded as a “barrier” or “obstruction” to the act taking place on the altar.  Cardinal Ratzinger asks in reply, “Is the cross disruptive during Mass?  Is the priest more important than the Lord?” (*The Spirit of the Liturgy*, p. 84)  His response to this objection is that “the cross on the altar is not obstructing the view” and is “an open ‘iconostasis.’” (*Feast of Faith*, p. 145)

[6] St. Basil of Caesarea, a 4th century bishop in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), wrote that the custom of “turn[ing] to the East at the prayer” is not a written teaching but a practice received “in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles.” (On the Holy Spirit 66)

[7] See the Order of Mass 1, 29, 127, 132, 133, 139, 141, and 144; also see GIRM 124, 146, 154, 157, 165, 181, 244, and 268.

[8] When a church’s architecture does not place the sanctuary and altar in the eastern end of the building, one could treat that part of the church where the altar is located as a “liturgical east.”

[9] Among these are: God is light (cf. 1 John 1:5), Christ is the “sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2), Christ as “the East” (Zech. 3:8, Septuagint), the location of Eden “in the east” (Gen. 2:8), the east-facing gate of the Temple (cf. Ezek. 44:1), Christ ascending toward the east (cf. Acts 1:11), and His statement about His return “from the east.” (Matt. 24:27)

[final part of response]

 **Liturgical Significance**

 So what value is there in celebrating the Eucharist facing the east?

 First, we can express our spiritual worship through our bodies.  When the priest says “Lift up your hearts” before the Eucharistic Prayer, and the congregation responds “We lift them up to the Lord,” there is an internal orientation toward the Lord being spoken of.  This internal reality should also be expressed by external signs if possible.  Celebrating the Eucharist facing the east is an external manifestation of being directed to the Lord, of our hope for His return, for the new dawn and the endless day of Heaven.

 Second, this posture should not be misconstrued as the priest having his back to the people, but as the priest and the people facing the same direction together.  At the end of his sermons, St. Augustine would often say “*conversi ad Dominum*” (“let us turn toward the Lord”), which had both a spiritual (conversion) and a literal (orientation) meaning in the liturgy, as priest and people would face the east together for the Eucharistic portion of the liturgy.  In this way, we resume the shared posture of the entrance procession by which we express our pilgrim state on earth, on a journey to the Lord. (cf. *The Spirit of the Liturgy*, p. 80)

 Third, churches were traditionally built facing the east, that is, with the altar at the eastern end, so that the Eucharist could be celebrated in that direction.  Cardinal Ratzinger refers to this as being mindful of the “cosmic dimension” or “orientation” of the liturgy (*Feast of Faith*, p. 140) by which the whole of creation can be included in worship of God.  This architecture “stand[s] in the cosmos, inviting the sun to be a sign of the praise of God and a sign of the mystery of Christ.” (*Feast of Faith*, p. 143)  Cardinal Ratzinger suggests that if our buildings were oriented this way, it would facilitate the recovery of a spirituality that embraces creation in a traditional manner.

 Fourth, while it is reasonable for the Liturgy of the Word to be celebrated face-to-face as an exchange between the one proclaiming the Word and those hearing it, this orientation is not as suited to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  The communal character of the liturgy is a positive and necessary one, but it should not be emphasized to the point that the Eucharist is regarded merely a communal meal.  The Eucharist is offered first *to God* as a sacrifice, from Whom it is received as spiritual food.

 Fifth, there is sometimes confusion about the various ways in which Christ is present in the liturgy.  He is present in the priest in a particular way, and He is also present in the congregation, for where two or three are gathered in His name, He is present in their midst. (cf. Matt. 10:10)  But the congregation does not pray to Christ-in-the-priest, nor does the priest pray to Christ-in-the-people.  God is present in nature, but we do not worship a rock or a river as God; likewise, we do not worship one another as Christ.  The *manner* of God’s presence is not the same in all things.  The Church is not a community closed in on itself, but is open to “what lies ahead and above,” to God. (*The Spirit of the Liturgy*, p. 80)  The Eucharist is not a “dialogue” between the priest and the congregation but between the Church and the Lord.

This response has been taken from Praying the Mass: The Prayers of the Priest, pages 56-63

The short answer is to say that churches were traditionally built in such a way that the main altar always faced East. Because the Sun rises in the East, the East became a symbol of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a result, the custom began whereby the clergy celebrated the Mass facing East.

It happened, however, that churches sometimes could not be built facing East, for one practical reason or another. In the case of such churches, the altar is considered the “Liturgical East”, even though it is not actually facing East.

Why would it matter? It doesn’t matter to everyone. But it does matter to many liturgists, liturgical purists, and liturgically-attuned clergy; to many historically-attuned or traditionally-oriented (no pun intended) Catholics, and, as it happens, to the current Pope.

Time will tell how widely this return to the East will spread throughout the Church.

I believe St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was not built facing east so that when Mass is celebrated at its high altar the celebrant is both facing ad orientem and at the same time versus populum.

Yes, it and other ancient Roman basilicas were occidented due to topography and in imitation of the Inner Temple of Jerusalem.

The altar at St. Peter’s is free-standing, according to the most ancient custom, and yes, the celebrant (the Pope) stands on the side of it that causes him to face the bulk of the congregation, as that is East. This is the case with many, many ancient churches, including the major basilicas of Rome.

It has to be remembered that, at the time, the liturgical custom was for the principal doors to be opened (at the Gloria, I believe), at which time the congregation would, in fact, all turn around and face East, together, with the celebrant. So, while the celebrant was, indeed, facing both the East and the people simultaneously, it was the congregation, also facing East, that had their backs turned on the celebrant! An interesting scenario to consider in light of complaints about celebrants turning their backs on the people if ad orientem celebrations are restored.

So yes, at Rome, at St. Peter’s, the Pope celebrates Mass at once ad orientam and versus populum. The congregation no longer turn their back on him to face St. Peter’s Square, however.

It’s also worth remembering in light of the spurious but widespread claim that ad orientem posture is important so that the priest and people do not turn their backs on the Blessed Sacrament.

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