Cross, Altar and the Right Way of Praying

From Homilectic and Pastoral Review
By Father Stephan Heid

Recalling the rituals and rubrics of the past which retain their meaning today.

In the Vatican, and in the pontifical basilicas of Rome (formerly called “patriarchal basilicas”), a ruling has recently been made that a standing cross should be placed at the center of high or freestanding altars. No specification is given as to the kind and size of the cross. As a rule, the implementation of this request has been appropriate: a high-standing cross with corpus has been set in place facing the priest celebrant, such that he is able to look upon the crucified Jesus. Such a request, which articulates what should actually be a matter of course, may come as a surprise. But in Rome, for many years prior to this time, the bad habit had developed of pushing the cross to the corner of the altar, so that it would not “disturb,” facilitating a “television friendly” liturgy, especially for papal Masses.

The cross is the focal point of salvation and of liturgical action. It should, of course, harmonize with the altar in style and proportion, but it should certainly not be low standing. The cross is supposed to disturb! The priest is not supposed to “overlook” it! However, the objection is sometimes made that a barrier is created by the cross between clergy and people, something on the line of an iconostasis (a wall of icons in Eastern rite churches, separating the nave from the sanctuary). But this is a specious argument as even the enormous altar cross in the Basilica of St. Peter does not really block the view. There are very few churches, after all, where the people face the altar straight on; more commonly, they face the altar from a lateral perspective, looking past the cross to the priest. Moreover, the higher the cross is placed, the less likely it will obstruct the people’s view. It thus becomes for all a spiritual “attention-getter” (if it is aesthetically high-standing). Finally, it is further objected that an altar cross creates a doubling of crucifixes, in the case that a cross already hangs above or behind the altar. However, the cross on the altar is for the priest, facing him with its corpus, while the faithful look at their cross above the altar.

There will no doubt be some clashes with liturgical committees, when pastors, choosing to follow Roman custom, begin taking their altar crosses out of the closet. In order to forestall precipitous reactions in these debates, we would like to establish the larger context in which the discussion belongs. There are a number of liturgical practices that have disappeared from use over centuries. Without a reflective look at these rituals, however, it could easily happen that even the loveliest of liturgical directives would shrivel into meaningless formalism.

The sacrificial action of the Eucharist takes place on the altar, within a continuous current of prayer: from the prayer over the gifts, through the Eucharistic Prayer, to the Our Father. In this respect, the Eucharistic action is markedly different from the liturgy of the Word that precedes it.  The ambo is, strictly speaking, not a place of prayer; the Opening Prayer is better placed at the celebrant’s chair. In the usus antiquior, the priest is always standing at the altar, and almost always praying! The silent prayers are neither private prayers nor mere time-fillers (i.e., horror vacui), but rather to make the altar a place of unceasing prayer.

Once this point has been acknowledged, the implication is that the priest at the altar takes on a different attitude, or mindset, than he has anywhere else. Here he stands, first and foremost, as one who prays. Christianity recognizes this distinctive prayer posture where the priest raises his hands, as well as his eyes. The raising of hands and eyes belongs, inseparably, to the gesture of early Christian prayer, just as Jesus himself practiced in the Jewish tradition.  Standing in prayer is also part of this tradition, seen as a fundamental posture for one in prayer; on one’s knees praying, likewise, uses elevated hands and eyes, all dating back to early Christianity. Since the Middle Ages, this prayer posture, with hands and eyes raised, has faded somewhat from practice. Now, it is only the priest raising his hands (and eyes for only a few short moments) because he is reading prayers. He does look up, for instance, in the Roman canon at the time of the consecration while speaking the words: “et elevatis oculis in coelum”. Therefore, Jesus inaugurates the Eucharist “with eyes raised to heaven.”

Even in the ordo novus, the rubric at this point reads: “He (the priest) raises his eyes.” But where exactly is the priest supposed to be looking, at the church ceiling? So when the priest in reciting a prayer is required to look upward, rather than simply staring into space, the obvious focal point is a high-standing cross on the main altar.

Of course, the practice of having a cross on the altar facing the priest is not only needed for a few isolated moments. It has a more general purpose.  When the priest stands at the altar in unceasing prayer to God, he will be gazing at God’s Son, through whom his every petition, his every word of praise, is, in fact, offered.

Since God is creator, the world is not chaotic, but a universe divinely fashioned and providentially ordered. There is an “above” and a “below,” or in scriptural terms, upon the heavens his throne is set, earth is his footstool. Already, the early Church Fathers observed that Christians stand erect to pray: as free creatures of God, who hold their heads high, and look up with their eyes to the One who looks down on them from his heavenly throne. To pray is to converse with God. It would be impolite not to be looking at someone with whom we are conversing. The act of looking up when we pray is, therefore, an expression of the whole creation theology of the Old and New Testaments.

Sinful man attempts to hide from God, like Adam and Eve hid in the bushes. Redeemed man, on the other hand, does not need to hang his head in shame; happy and free, he may look God in the face and “dare” to say: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” He may dare to do this because Jesus Christ is truly Son by nature, and he alone can pray “Father;” while we, through grace, enjoy the same relationship, being so invited into this act of filial boldness. We are only creatures, but the baptized are privileged creatures, because, whether man or woman, we are in Christ as beloved sons and daughters of the same heavenly Father.

This was precisely what the early Church wished to bring to expression in the prayer posture it adopted.  In prayer, when we speak with God, we embrace our filial identity.  But since in the physical space of the church, one’s view to the heavenly throne of God was blocked by walls, the effort was made to clear a virtual path of vision to heaven. The apse was often painted, or studded, with mosaics, with a section of the painting portraying the starry sky. This broke open the church’s ceiling to heaven.

The priests and the faithful could look up to the apse when they prayed, seeing  into heaven, so to speak. The gaze of the faithful was not focused on the altar and the celebrant, but rather overhead. The church building itself always had to be “oriented” to the east at this graphically depicted heavenly art.  The actual geographical orientation toward the east was of secondary importance.

Now, it was clear from the beginning that Christian prayer was not simply directed to God alone, but through Jesus Christ to the heavenly Father. This is precisely where the cross comes into play as a focal point. Thus, in the early church, not only heaven, but the cross, as well, was depicted in the apse, or at least placed at a high location in the apse. Everyone was supposed to be looking at the cross when they prayed. The best example of this arrangement is in the apse of the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe near Ravenna, Italy, which dates back to the sixth century.

The Church’s practice of placing an elevated cross on the altar—which up to a few decades ago was taken to be a matter of course—was well-grounded, both liturgically and theologically. Even after the Second Vatican Council, there was no good reason why crucifixes should be placed like props only on the rarely used side altars. On the contrary, the altar is the place of prayer: the cross belongs there, and, indeed, even more so, on the main altar. It is the place of raising one’s hands, mind and eyes to “look upon the one whom they have pierced.” Here, heaven opened up at the moment when darkness covered the earth: the Sun of Righteousness on the cross was raised up at the center of the earth, making our darkness light.

In the myriad publications about the posture of prayer, one rarely finds so much as a reference to the raising of the hands. Authors always assume, as their starting point, the prayer posture of “normal” believers, who fold their hands in prayer. After all, hand folding dates back many hundred years. Nevertheless, the point is regularly concealed that the “real” prayer posture (still today) is what the priest does at Mass. Whenever the priest says, “Let us pray,” he lifts up his hands as he begins praying.  In the early and medieval Church, as the priest announced, “Let us pray,” the congregation would stand up, raising their hands. In modern times, however, the prayer postures of priest and faithful have parted ways. The faithful kneel or stand when they pray, and fold their hands. The early Christian prayer posture, the raising of hands and eyes to heaven, has been so thoroughly forgotten, that it is no longer felt to be a gesture of prayer at all; rather it is taken to be some specifically priestly ritual of obscure origin.

Wide divergence and inconsistency of practice do not make it easy for the faithful to understand what the raising of the priest’s hands is supposed to mean, and what it has to do with prayer, especially since the congregation does not use such a posture. Priests themselves appear to have no idea why they do what they do, for each one does it in a different way. At the moment, there is no common practice with regard to prayer posture. It seems to me that there is something missing here. After all, the Christian faith, owing to the Incarnation, has a much closer, more conscious relationship to the body than do other religions. Prayer is not mere interiority, but must incarnate itself in particular prayer postures.

The most important thing with regard to prayer posture was already mentioned in connection with the raising of the eyes. The early Christians explicitly stressed the point that man is not like the other animals walking on four paws; rather, man stands erect, and in a certain sense, approaches heaven through his bodily disposition. Man can acknowledge God, and speak to him. This is why he stands erect, raises his hands and eyes to heaven. Everyone who prays should adopt this posture, not only the priest.

Christians took over the common customary prayer posture of late antiquity. They even emphasized this very continuity. For them, too, God was in heaven. Of course, for them there was only one God, who created heaven and earth. But there was an unqualified acceptance by Christians for using this Jewish and pagan prayer posture. The raising of hands and eyes was important to them because God had his throne in heaven.

More importantly, there is another practice taken from antiquity which they adopted: the cleansing of the hands. The hand and face washing that precedes ritual prayer is no invention of Moslems. Islamic followers adopted it in the seventh century based on Christian prayer practices. Christians used to wash themselves, or at least their hands, before praying. A water fountain stood in the forecourt of churches precisely for this purpose. In the atrium of St. Peter’s in Rome, there stood the famous stone pine fountain. A sarcophagus from Ravenna portrays such a washing bowl: a cantharus (deep bowl) adorned with peacocks.

This washing concerned an attitude of purity and integrity in prayer. Precisely because one’s hands were raised to heaven while praying, they had to be clean. The believer wanted to be seen by God. So, persons who prayed would show washed hands as a sign that they were not stained with blood. For Christians, washed hands were supposed to express that one entered into God’s presence with a pure conscience. “The clean of hand and pure of heart” may go up to the mountain of the Lord, was a Psalm sung by those traveling to the temple in Jerusalem (Ps 24:4).

This explains this prayer posture in the early Church: a person’s hands were held relatively close in front of one’s face with the palms turned outwards, as is the custom in the Dominican rite even today.  It was a way of saying: “Here, God, look at my hands! No blood and no injustice cling to them. And only in this manner do I dare to pray and raise my voice to you.”  St. John Chrysostom addressed his followers by saying that it was not enough to raise washed hands to God; these hands must also be made holy through works of charity. So, in the forecourt of the church, one should not only go to the fountain for hand washing, but also use the opportunity to give alms to the poor who begged there.

What remains of this rite of hand washing, previously practiced by all of the faithful, is the priest’s ritual hand washing before the Eucharistic prayer. The faithful no longer wash their hands, because they also no longer raise their hands when they pray. In its place, people bless themselves with holy water at the church entrance, reminding themselves of their baptism.

These rituals of the past retain their meaning even today. Christian prayer presupposes “clean hands.”  A person who has sinned against his neighbor also sins against God. In refusing to be reconciled with his neighbor, a person should not approach the altar of God. The act of faith does not simply erase all past and future sins. Our behavior and actions create new obstacles on the way to God, weakening the effectiveness of our prayer. The priest is reminded of his own inadequacy every time he holds up his hands. This automatic gesture should provoke in his mind a serious examination of conscience: what makes you worthy that you alone can raise your hands in prayer? Have you done everything in your power to enable you, with pure hands and full transparency of spirit, to bring before God the gifts and prayers of the people?


About Fr. Stefan Heid

Fr. Stefan Heid is professor of the History of Christian Culture, Liturgy, and Hagiography at the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archeology in Rome. He received a degree in Catholic theology from the University of Bonn, Germany, in 1988, and studied Christian Archaeology and Classical Greek, becoming a vice chairman for the Dept. of the History of the Ancient Church, Patrology and Christian Archeology at the University of Bonn, 1985 to 1986. In 1991, he received a doctorate in theology from the University of Bonn. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Cologne in 1994. In 2000, he completed habilitation and Venia legendi (independent study and permission to teach) History of the Ancient Church, Patrology and Christian Archaeology. In 2001, he was appointed professor of History of Liturgy and Hagiography at the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome. In 2004, he was an invited professor of the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical University St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. In 2006, he became vice rector at the Pontifical German College in Rome, Campo Santo Teutonico. In 2007, he became associate professor of the faculty of theology of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He then became a Chaplain to His Holiness, Pope Benedict in 2009. Since 2011, he has been director of the Institut of the Goerres-Gesellschaft.

He has been an editor for the quarterly review: Römische Quartalschrift für Christliche Altertumskunde und Kirchengeschichte,  and co-editor of Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana. His published books and monographs include: “Chiliasmus und Antichrist-Mythos. Eine frühchristlich Kontroverse um das Heilige Land.” Hereditas 6 (Bonn 1993); “Kreuz, Jerusalem, Kosmos: Aspekte frühchristlicher Staurologie” Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum. Ergänzungsband 31 (Münster 2001); Celibacy in the Early Church. The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West  (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000); “Giuseppe Wilpert archeologo cristiano,” Atti del Convegno, Roma; Ed. Stefan Heid. May 16-19, 2007, Sussidi allo Studio delle Antichità Cristiane 22 (Città del Vaticano 2009); In collaboration with Chr. Gnilka / R. Riesner, Blutzeuge. Tod und Grab des Petrus in Rom (Regensburg 2010).

This entry was posted in Spiritual Life and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Cross, Altar and the Right Way of Praying

  1. toadspittle says:


    What this article clearly needs is a series of “reader friendly” diagrams, for those of us who don’t know our apse from our elbow.
    They could be mildly humourous, but obviously not disrespectful!


  2. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Toad is mildly humorous, but obviously not disrespectful.

    This article is so far removed from relevance to real life that no diagram will help. A diaphram however might have prevented this misconceived piece from troubling the lives of ordinary Catholics, who have enough to contend with.

    A case of fiddling while Rome burns.


  3. JabbaPapa says:

    Attendance of Mass, and the organisation of the Mass in order to satisfy people’s expectations of it, is, in fact, a part of real life.


  4. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Sorry Jabba,

    The notion that prayer posture has a shred of real importance is, in fact, risible. You talk of ‘the organisation of the Mass’ yet the main strand of the article is prayer posture.


  5. teresa says:

    Prayer posture, and the rubrics of the Mass are important. Why? It is perhaps for modern people a little bit hard to grasp as the meaning of public ceremony has gone back and people are not used to the rituals which are performed to give our dreary daily life a higher meaning. But take the example of hoisting a national flag, the soldiers do take great care of their postures. Every move is prescribed.

    Or let us make a comparison to the theatre or opera: even the seemingly casual movements made by the actors and actresses are carefully thought out by the director.

    Normal people don’t think too much about their movements but if you are standing on a podium or a platform, you will know how importance even the slightest movement you make is. With all eyes fixed upon you, a small mistake will suffice to irritate those who are watching you.


  6. JabbaPapa says:

    The notion that prayer posture has a shred of real importance is, in fact, risible.

    I’m sure that every Catholic reading these blogs is very impressed with your scorn.

    Whatever you personally think about this question is probably of not much relevance to those for whom these questions are a part of ordinary religious life.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s