ROME, 20 DEC. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My parish has a beautiful crucifix mounted on the wall behind the altar that has been a great aid in my prayer life. Unfortunately, I must pray without this aid during the seasons of Christmas and of Easter, as during these seasons the crucifix is completely covered. During Christmas, a star is placed above the crucifix with a tail that hangs down to completely cover it. Likewise, during Easter, a banner of the Risen Christ is hung over the crucifix so that it is hidden from view. I realize that "a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, [be] either on the altar or near it" during Mass (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 308), and I considered the processional cross, which is placed beside the sanctuary during Mass, to fulfill this requirement when the crucifix behind the altar is covered (cf. GIRM, 122). However, upon further reflection, I now question if the processional cross fulfills this requirement as it is beside the sanctuary during Mass and not "next to the altar" (GIRM, 122); and, it is not "clearly visible to the [entire] assembled congregation" (GIRM, 308). As well, it does not "remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations" (GIRM, 308). Is it appropriate that the crucifix mounted on the wall behind the altar be covered during any liturgical season? — R.G., Leduc, Alberta
A: While I don't think it is a good idea to cover the cross during these liturgical seasons, it does not appear to be illicit.
It is illicit, however, not to have any crucifix presiding over the altar during the celebration. The processional cross could fulfill this function, but only if it is placed on a stand beside the altar during the celebration.
Indeed, the indications in the norms referenced by our reader are that the processional cross is only carried out of sight in those cases where a crucifix is already present on or near the altar. If there is no cross, then it should be placed near the altar and serve as the altar cross.
Another possible solution, if the wall cross is covered or absent, is to place a crucifix upon the altar proper. In this case the processional cross should be carried away to one side so that only one cross presides over the altar.
While there may be no absolute prohibition to substituting the main crucifix for a smaller one during these liturgical seasons, I am of the opinion that it is not a felicitous idea.
As the U.S. bishops' conference recommends in its document "Built of Living Stones":
"§ 123 § The tradition of decorating or not decorating the church for liturgical seasons and feasts heightens the awareness of the festive, solemn, or penitential nature of these seasons. Human minds and hearts are stimulated by the sounds, sights, and fragrances of liturgical seasons, which combine to create powerful, lasting impressions of the rich and abundant graces unique to each of the seasons.
"§ 124 § Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear."
In the case described, the crucifix as an important, albeit not primary, liturgical point of focus is obscured rather than enhanced.
While a star is a frequent symbol of Christmas, and even of Christ, placing it right behind the altar places too much emphasis upon a secondary symbol.
While the figure of the risen Christ might appear more justified, nothing would be lost and much gained by placing the image in some other part of the sanctuary.
I hope that this practice is not an attempt to deliberately remove the crucifix from sight during these seasons. This would be a grave error. The Church insists that a crucifix must always be present for Mass during all seasons of the year in order to remind us of the presence of Our Lord's infinite sacrifice.
It is through the infinite sacrifice that Christ's entire saving mystery, from the annunciation to the ascension, is made present in each and every celebration. Even though we designate certain times and seasons to underline specific mysteries, the cross remains at the heart of the mystery of God's total self-giving for our salvation.
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Follow-up: Covering the Crucifix [1-17-2012]
There were several inquiries regarding the crucifix (see Dec. 20). A reader from Zambia asked which direction the figure of Christ should face when the cross is placed upon the altar itself or when the processional cross is used as the altar cross. Answer: In both cases the figure of Christ should face toward the celebrant. This is the current practice for papal Masses in Rome.
When there is a large crucifix present behind or suspended above the altar, there is no need for other crosses to be placed upon or near the altar itself.
A figure of the Risen Lord or any other similar image of Christ does not substitute the crucifix.
The crucifix, however, may adopt any of several historical styles. As well as the more common form of a dying or deceased Christ, it is possible to use an image of the Regal Christ. This image has the Savior with arms outstretched on the cross but alive, fully robed and sometimes wearing a kingly crown as the one who reigns from the cross. According to art historians, this form of representing Christ crucified was quite common until the Middle Ages, when the more dramatic images of the dying Christ became more popular in art and devotion.
This question arose with the beginning of Mass facing the people. Beforehand, both people and celebrant always faced toward the crucifix. The source for the answer is a clarification published in Latin in the review Notitiae in 1966. Although Notitiae is hard to find, the website www.ipsissima-verba.org has performed an invaluable service in publishing the most important responses and clarifications issued by this review which is the official organ of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Not all of the replies have the same legal force, and some are outdated, but the fact that the material is available on the web saves a lot time in the library.