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Appropriate Placement of Symbols  
Johan M. J. van Parys, PHD  

One of the side effects of my being a liturgist is that I am tempted to analyze the liturgy wherever I go. I find myself giving advice to the lectors, critiquing the musical selections, and editing the homily. On occasion, I also am tempted to rearrange the space. Thankfully, I only do these things in my imagination and I most often use my inner voice. Judging from people's comments during liturgy conferences, I gather that many of us are tempted in the same way. I cannot imagine we would come up with the same advice, the same critique, the same edits and the same rearrangement? Regarding the spatial arrangements, this begs the question about universal norms. Do they exist for arranging liturgical spaces? In this column we will consider three: scale, location, and permanence.

First, scaling symbols and decor is the easiest, but the most difficult of tasks. Everything used in the liturgy needs to be scaled according to the building and according to its symbolic importance. From a symbolic perspective, the paschal candle, for instance needs to outsize all other candles. Otherwise, this symbol will make no sense. From the standpoint of appropriate scale, flower arrangements need to be of a certain size in order to work in a building. Sometimes it is better not to have flowers if our only option is undersized arrangements. Judging symbols and decor from the point of view of symbolic importance and scaling them according to the size of the building is an essential part of preparing the church for worship. This norm seems reasonable, but is not always easy to accomplish.

Second, the appropriate placement of the seasonal symbols and the decorative elements requires that they be conspicuous and yet, never obtrusive. Built of Living Stones states, "Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves . . . . [They are] to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus" (#124). In other words, they must be noticeable, yet they must not draw attention away from the liturgy or hinder the liturgical action. People who prepare the church for Christmas, should remember that, for example, large trees may impact the sound of the choir, banks of flowers may prevent access to the baptismal font or hinder processions, and large plants may obscure the view of the altar. Deciding the right proportions and finding the perfect location is both quite complex and of the greatest importance.

Third, it is good to consider the concept of repetition and permanence. Liturgy is ritual, and ritual thrives on repetition. This also holds for liturgical symbols and seasonal decor. It makes no sense to reinvent everything every season. Although one might give some weight to the element of surprise, in the end symbols work best when they can rely on recognition and expectation. In light of this, it might be helpful to designate one spot in the building as the place for seasonal symbols. The Advent wreath may become a Christmas wreath, while during Lent it is replaced by a large wooden cross that is decorated with a victory wreath during Easter, and Pentecost mobile may take its place at the last Sunday of the season.

As if these spatial considerations were not complicated enough, expectation on the part of those of us who create the decor complicate matters even further. We deem the seasonal symbols important and we spend time and energy on the decor, therefore we desire prime locations for our creations. This becomes even more challenging when children are involved. They and their families want to see the children's contributions, and they should when it is appropriate.

Because of all this, we may want to consider two important principles: one, those preparing the liturgical decor should never work in a vacuum; second, they should consider the entire church their responsibility, not certain prime locations.

First, it is essential that the liturgy committee discuss the decor for every season with all parties involved and from all perspectives. Not only those who create the environment, but musicians, sacristans, ministers of hospitality, acolytes, and the presider should be involved in the decision-making process. This way, everyone may voice his or her opinions, concerns, and needs, and no one will be confronted with too much of a surprise right before the Midnight Mass or the Easter Vigil.

Second, those responsible for the decor should think of the entire church (inside and out, including the narthex) as their canvas, not just the sanctuary. The advantages of this approach are numerous: it will prevent the sanctuary from becoming overcrowded, it will include the entire building and all those present for the liturgy in the visual embrace of the liturgy, and it will often afford a more effective symbol.

Instead of placing the Advent wreath next to the altar, one might consider suspending it from the ceiling in the center of the church. The overall result is a more substantial symbol with which the entire assembly gathered can interact in a more immediate way, while the sanctuary remains free from clutter.

None of this is easy, nor will it be accomplished overnight. However, because the task of preparing the church for worship is essential for the successful celebration of the liturgy it is vital that we come back to these principles time and time again until we get it right . . . in heaven.

© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609

Johan M. J. van Parys, PHD, is Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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