Principles for the Seasonal Environment

May 17, 2007


Spring has finally arrived in Delaware, and I am thinking about planting some azaleas.  I am also in the midst of writing this article.  I have remembered a favorite quote from a favorite person, John Buscemi (artist and liturgical design consultant):  "Never teach a pig to play the piano.  It wastes your time and it annoys the pig."

Translation:  It is simply not appropriate to give a pig piano lessons.  Doing what is appropriate is a good principle on which to base the placement of azaeleas in my back garden and a good starting point for seasonal decorating of the liturgical environment.

To whit:  We are talking about "decorating" in its fullest and finest sense.  Peter Mazar says this in his book, To Crown the Year: Decorating the Church Through the Seasons.

"The word 'decoration' can suggest materials that are cheap.  Worse, the word suggests stuff that is non-essential, merely added for the fun of it.  It's too good a word to abandon.  'Decoration' (and related words 'decorum' and 'decorous') can mean 'appropriate honor.'  That's what the Latin decorus means: 'seemly,' 'decent,' 'fit for its purpose.'"

When we prepare the environment for the liturgical seasons, we are doing what is appropriate in the space so that it is fit for the assembly's worship.  We are not trying to make our little country church into a grand, gothic cathedral.  Neither should our inspiration come from the Christmas decorations at the local mall.

More principles...

The standard for decorating the environment is the revised rites of the church celebrated by the assembly throughout the liturgical year.  Therefore...

Know the rites...all the rites of the church, not only the Mass.   

~ The rites define the space.  Not the other way around.

~ The rites presume an appropriate environment in which to celebrate them.

~ Regarding the Easter Vigil, the Sacramentary of the Roman Catholic Church says, "A large fire is prepared in a suitable place outside the church."  It does not say a hibachi in the vestibule will do...might be easier, but it's not appropriate.

Know the liturgical year.

~ The Triduum and the Easter Season stand at the head of the liturgical year.

~ The decorations for Christmas must not be more elaborate than for Easter.

Know the documents.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal

General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar

Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship (U.S.)

Our Place of Worship (Canada)

The Place of Worship (Ireland)

Liturgy is ritual.  Ritual is language; its vocabulary is symbolic action, its primary message is the Paschal Mystery...the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  There are primary and secondary symbols.  Therefore...

~ Know and focus on the primary symbols and gestures, i.e., water, fire and light, bread and wine, the assembly, the word, etc.

~ Use secondary symbols, like flowers and fabrics to highlight and support the primary ones.

Ritual is naturally repetitive.  Therefore...

~ The liturgical environment need not be re-invented every year.  "What shall we do for Advent this year?" is NOT a good question. 

~ GOOD questions are:  "How will the environment help the assembly experience the Paschal Mystery more deeply throughout the season?"  "How will we emphasize the primary symbols of this season?"

One size does NOT fit all.  Therefore...

~ Pay attention to proportion and scale.  Two large pots of lilies are often much more effective than individual pots scattered around the altar and ambo.

~ Know your assembly -- its culture and history.

~ Pay attention to the space itself, its architecture and style.

~ Remember...the lighting and the sound system are part of the environment.

The entire building and the grounds are worthy.  Therefore...

~ Do decorate the entire church...inside and outside.

~ Do not decorate a mess...inside and outside.

Liturgy is about God and humans in a real relationship.  Therefore...

~ There is no place in the liturgical environment for fake flowers or plants.

~ If it's fake, we don't need to pay attention to it.

~ If it's fake, it does not speak of the Paschal Mystery.

When it's over, it's over.  Therefore...

~ Let the poinsettias go when the Christmas season is over.

~ Let the lilies go when the Easter season is over.

Jane Hanson is a fabric artist who lives in Wilmington, DE.

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