Preparations ... then repose
Helping prepare an "altar of repose" with flowers and candles for the Eucharist after Holy Thursday Mass is a particularly meaningful part of Holy Week for Joan Koch of St. Michael Parish in South Sioux City.
That’s where she and others offer the entire parish an opportunity for a quiet and contemplative experience of the Lord’s presence, praying and remembering his passion.
"This is what we can contribute," she said of the effort.
And it’s not just St. Michael. Sacred Heart Parish in Norfolk, Immaculate Conception Parish in Omaha and many more parishes across the archdiocese take pride in creating a beautiful altar for that sacred night, be it in a separate chapel or a side altar in the church.
The Eucharist is reserved on these altars, until midnight in many parishes, after being carried in solemn procession at the Holy Thursday Mass – the Lord’s Last Supper, the night before his death.
"In preparation for Good Friday, we remember Jesus as he went from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane," said Father David Fulton, pastor of St. Michael Parish.
"So, in imitation, we remove the Blessed Sacrament to this other location," he said. "The altar of repose allows people to stay until midnight, praying and keeping watch with Jesus."
Koch, a member of St. Michael’s Legion of Mary praesidium, is one of several people who each year decorates a side altar in that church to reserve the Eucharist.
It includes a white altar cloth, a tabernacle, two seven-candle candelabras, four lilies and several arrangements of yellow and lavender mums, and large, yellow bows on each corner of the altar, she said.
Flowers, candles and the tabernacle are important parts of the altar of repose at Immaculate Conception Parish, as well. With lights dimmed and candles lit, colored fabric forming a backdrop and canopy, the Eucharist remains on the altar until midnight, when it is moved to a place in the sacristy until Good Friday services, said Rob Burns, a parishioner.
"At Immaculate Conception Parish, we try to do it as big as possible and make it nicer than the year before," Burns said.
At Sacred Heart Parish’s St. Mary Church, an altar of repose is prepared in a separate oratory in the adjacent elementary school, said Karl Henkel, liturgist.
"By creating a beautifully decorated altar of repose, we create a place where we can pray with Jesus in the final hours before his passion begins," he said.
Parishioners carry candles and sing "Pange Lingua" as they process with the Blessed Sacrament from the church to the oratory, Henkel said.
"The procession to the altar of repose, and the time of adoration fill me with an awesome sense of intimacy with Jesus," he said. "Adoration at the place of reposition is like being with a friend (Jesus) who is about to give his life so that I might live."
A group of parishioners at Immaculate Conception takes their devotion one step further, practicing a centuries-old tradition that began in Rome – pilgrimage to seven churchs’ altars of repose on Holy Thursday evening, said parishioner Elizabeth Coffey.
Each year, about 20 people travel by vans and cars to various Omaha churches, spending about 10 minutes praying at each, she said. In the past, they have visited St. Cecilia, St. Peter, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Margaret Mary, St. Gerald, Mary Our Queen and others.
For Coffey, this practice creates a sense of unity.
Holy Thursday is when the Passion begins, when Jesus asked, "can you watch with me for one hour," she said. "When we get the opportunity to go to the other churches, we see others are also watching and waiting with him. It brings us together as a Catholic community."
These devotions also set the stage for the celebration of the remainder of the triduum.
"Holy Thursday puts you in the right mindset – to see the beauty of Thursday night and to come back for Good Friday services, which are very solemn, including the veneration of the cross," Coffey said. "Whether or not you’ve had a good Lent, you do on that Friday. It’s very penitential and very humbling.
"Then, the Easter Vigil Saturday night brings you full circle," she said. "Starting with the candles, the new holy water, and people being baptized, confirmed and receiving first Communion – it’s joyous. And the singing of the Gloria when the bells start ringing, it’s very moving. All is made new."
"The triduum is really one continuous liturgy that covers three days," Henkel said, "and I experience them as one long event, like a marathon. The prayers of the next day begin where the previous day left off, and by the end of the marathon, joy overtakes contrition, and the hope of eternal life overtakes suffering."
An adorer at Immaculate Conception Church in Omaha takes time last year to pray before the Eucharist in a special place prepared for Holy Thursday and called an "altar of repose."