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Let the Main Thing be the Main Thing


Principle 5: The essential elements should always be highlighted, not hidden or dwarfed.

The fifth principle, above, comes from Celebrating the Eucharist by Patrick Malloy (The first principle is here, the second principle is here, the third principle is here, the fourth is here).

The most important things on the Lord’s Table are the bread and wine. In many congregations, however, the bookstand is the visually dominant item. By virtue of its size and, in some cases, its ornamentation, it demands attention. Next to it, a shallow dish of paper-thin wafers does not stand a chance. What are the essential things when the church celebrates the Eucharist? Which objects are indispensable and bear the greatest theological weight? These questions apply not only to what is placed upon the altar, but to every object and every action in the liturgy. (page 23)

Again, and again, and again, I have written and spoken about the tendency in worship to put the emPHAsis on the wrong syLAble. I have advocated placing the copy of the Eucharistic Prayer flat on the altar table. Using a bookstand inevitably results in giving the impression that the presider is involved in something akin to cooking and checking the recipe. I regularly see presiders in orans leaving one hand skywards and turning the page on the bookstand with the other. If previously the presider was mimicking a cook, now it is a fencer dueling in a swordfight who is being imitated!

And then, of course, there are still communities that insist on using burse and veil with clergy performing arcane rituals with these objects at the end of which the burse stands vertically, tent-like, and the veil hangs on the congregation-side of the altar incongruously, asymmetrically, and distractingly often clashing with the altar frontal.

Add oversized candles and flowers, and a microphone, and one can understand the triumph of the pernickety, fastidious person in our shared liturgical life.

Please don’t limit your reflection on this to the altar table during the Eucharistic Prayer. This is merely one example of not letting the main thing be the main thing, where liturgy gets cluttered in word, sign, and symbol as Patrick Malloy quotes the well-known Percy Dearmer, “the evil in all religious customs, throughout history, has been the piling up of trivial details”. Patrick Malloy goes on to say that “The problem with ‘the piling up of trivial details’ is that they dwarf and strangle the essential things… The pastoral task is to distinguish the ‘trivial’ from the enriching in liturgical objects, texts, and actions.”

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12 thoughts on “Let the Main Thing be the Main Thing”

  1. By all means have a lectern that is not large but you go too hard here, Bosco, on those of us who like to use a lectern because the book flat on the table does not cut it for our eyes, and our memories are fallible re recitation without the book.

    Yes, let’s keep the main thing the main thing but the eucharistic prayer is bread+wine+words, so why the problem over the lectern?

    1. Peter, firstly I am convinced my eyes will be worse than yours – I have three independent significant problems with my eyesight. Having the Eucharistic Prayer in a good font flat on the altar table, I would be extremely surprised if that is not possible for you. I am expanding on Patrick Malloy’s point. I would not be legalistically fundamentalist about it. And we are back into wood and trees (the point of the post) if the only thing taken from this post is a debate about altar bookstands! I don’t see how “bread+wine+words” translates uncritically to “bread+wine+altarbookstand”. Are you suggesting that everywhere where there are words involved, inevitably, consequentially there must be a lectern? Blessings.

      1. If words are involved Bosco then it is reasonable to use a lectern if the use of it aids the words.

        Where a lectern is not useful to the words required for something then a lectern is not used.

        I am glad that Brian is a winess to the usefulness of a lectern!

  2. Morning Bosco,

    Amen!! I agree. The only point I would make is from a practical perspective some of us (ok, me) can’t actually read the book lying flat very well. Blame it on aging eyes or just being odd! I need a stand, but would like a more simple (and lower) one. Thank you for the reminder to look for that!


  3. I think immediately of Anton Baumstark’s famous First Law of organic liturgical development:

    “In general, because the primitive elements are not immediately replaced by completely new ones, the newcomers at first take their place alongside the others. Before long they assume a more vigorous and resistant character, and when the tendency to abbreviation makes itself felt it is the more primitive elements which are the first to be affected; these disappear completely or leave only a few traces.”

    (Comparative Liturgy, p. 23)

    But on the other hand, I simultaneously think of one of the “aphorisms” of the Colombian intellectual Nicolás Gómez Dávila (d.1994):

    “To restore an old liturgical gesture in a new context can amount to heresy.
    To receive communion standing today, for example, becomes a gesture of pride.”

    (Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 403; translation from a delightful and useful site: http://don-colacho.blogspot.com/2010/12/2505.html)

  4. When he celebrates at local churches, our bishop requests that a small cushion, rather than a book stand, be placed on the altar to support the Missal. That works fine for him, but our priest prefers to have a Eucharistic Minister or Deacon (when we have one) point to the place in the Missal, which is much easier if it is on a stable stand.
    More important perhaps is the practice of clearing the altar after the ablutions and not leaving any vessels but setting them aside on the credence table. Keep it simple seems to be the best advice.

  5. I laughed like a drain while reading this your article.

    I participated in many Byzantine Masses where the priest recited and chanted everything by heart, with no book except the Gospel book on the altar. And I am totally up for this. But this is rather impossible in Western rites, where there are several propers. So the altar lectern seems be indispensible, lest one would pour crumbs on the book instead of the corporal.

    I agree with you with the veil. In our congregation, we’re trying to DO the things (instead of getting rid of them), but in a PRACTICAL way. I mean: instead of doing a superficial washing for “the symbol”, we do it in a proper way. And the veil might be often practical, not only before the offertory, but also between the distribution of the communion and the purification.

    In fact, the purification should always take place in the end, because one can’t keep the people in silent prayer during long minutes, and the purification should be done properly.

  6. Too many wordy options. If we all got back to basics with simple liturgies life would be so much easier – from the altar and from the pew.
    Br G-M

    1. Yes, Graham-Michoel. There is a strong current of confusing worship with beautiful and ever-varying, creative poetry recitals! Thank you, also, for distinguishing wood and trees and seeing that this post is not primarily about the best style of altar bookstand 🙂 Blessings.

  7. In the Orthodox rite, the service book isn’t supposed to be placed on the altar in the first place. So we use either a free-standing lectern (which is not visually confusing at all) or a book small and light enough to be held in one hand comfortably. Bishops often use a server as a living lectern, as they have much larger service books typically.

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