Altar Steps


altar steps

A few weeks ago, Father George wondered why one of the steps leading up to the old back-facing  altar was wider than the others. SFDS Alum Ted Deady  “won the T-shirt” for explaining an old tradition. His brother John recaps:

Before Vatican II, “seminarians were ordained as subdeacons  at the end of third year theology (spring) and deacons at the beginning of fourth year theology (fall) before ordination to the priesthood…” In a strongly hierarchical age, these titles reflected the end of a long progression of ranks towards Holy Orders: from tonsured cleric to the minor orders of porter, lector, exorcist, then acolyte; then, finally, the major orders of subdeacon (who assisted the deacon), deacon (who assisted the priest), priest, and later, possibly, bishop.

John notes that in the strictly-choreographed Solemn Mass of the old Latin Rite,  these distinctions were significant: “the deacon would stand on that (wide) step during the Mass and the subdeacon was relegated  to the floor to wait his turn until he could move on up. At De Sales I think we had a Solemn Mass every Sunday at 11:00 when the choir also performed and we certainly didn’t spare the incense. Most funerals were also Solemn High Masses”

Why were sanctuary steps important? First, the raised sanctuary floor separated the holier part of the church from the congregation. Then, a symbolic number of additional steps — three; five, as in our church; or seven — led up to the holiest place, the platform called the predella, on which stood the altar and Tabernacle. Why was it raised? Think of a holy mountain: Moses on Mount Sinai; the Sacrifice of Abraham; the Transfiguration; and Calvary.

The arrangement of the steps was echoed outdoors. At the front of our church, from the sidewalk, which was open to everyone, several steps led up to a wide platform – like the floor of the sanctuary –  where the faithful could gather, before ascending more steps (all equal width this time) to the doors they would enter to participate in the sacrifice of the Mass. The doors were configured like the altars inside: a big wide entrance in the middle, with a smaller one on each side. Art Historian Richard Stemp notes: “The doors to a church are not just a physical entrance; they also function spiritually as part of the path towards redemption…” — a good argument for finishing the restoration!


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