On the Urn for the Altar of Repose

The locus aptus of St Patrick's, Soho Square, London. Photo by John Coverdale
One of the most marked differences between the liturgy before the reforms of the 1950's and after, from the point of view of the faithful, was that for possibly the first time in the Church’s history, they were able to receive Holy Communion on Good Friday. A consequence of this was the almost total demise of what, in English, is known as the “urn” -- or capsula in the missal. There other names; Fortescue simply describes it as “a little box.” Obviously, such a thing would be too small to contain the ciboria necessary for Communion for the many hundreds who frequently attend on Good Friday.

What is the urn? Why not use a tabernacle? We might perhaps consider a couple of theories on that subject. The most significant is that the altar of repose is not, in fact, an altar; and the urn is not a tabernacle (even if one of the latter is used as the former): there is no veil: already Our Lord is stripped of His garments.

The urn at the Church of the Annunciation, Marble Arch
The altar of repose is comparatively late in arising: there is little mention of it prior to 1570. Devotion, certainly in England, is focused more on Our Lord’s body between Good Friday and Holy Saturday and on the Easter Sepulchre. It is entirely plausible that pre-Reformation England never saw an altar of repose. One scholar is of the opinion that altars of repose owe more to the rise of devotion of forty hours adoration than to anything else. One can see where he is coming from when one looks at the many beautiful and devotional altars around the world. The procession too is quite possibly borrowed from the feast of Corpus Christi: well established in the calendar by 1570

The Locus Aptus at the London Oratory. Photo: Charles Cole
Back, however, to my previous statement. Late though the procession and reservation may be, it still pre-dates the profusion of many side altars in our churches and provision for tabernacles on said side altars. Therefore something temporary would have to be put up for that brief period. The missal initially refers to it as a “locus aptus” and then gives the option of an altar.

We are left, therefore, with the feeling of the Presence of the Lord divorced from the altar; in former times a very alien concept (though one we are perhaps more comfortable with now when the compromise of a tabernacle on a gradine some distance away from an altar is almost the norm). It marks the beginning of the Church’s suspension of the daily oblation at the altar. Dom Prosper Gueranger sums all of this up in these paragraphs:
Another rite, peculiar to to-day, is the Priest’s consecrating two Hosts during the Mass. One of these he receives in Communion; the other he reserves, and reverently places it in a Chalice, which he covers with a veil. The reason of this is, that, tomorrow, the Church suspends the daily Sacrifice. Such is the impression produced by the anniversary of our Saviour’s Death, that the Church dares not to renew, upon her Altars, the immolation which was then offered on Calvary : — or rather, her renewal of it will be by the fixing all her thoughts on the terrible scene of that Friday Noon. The Host reserved from to-day’s Mass, will be her morrow’s participation. This rite is called the Mass of the Presanctifled, because, in it, the Priest does not consecrate, but only receives the Host consecrated on the previous day…

But, although the Church suspends, for a few short hours, the oblation of the perpetual Sacrifice, — she would not that her Divine Spouse should lose aught of the homage, that is due to him in the Sacrament of his Love. Catholic piety has found a means of changing these trying hours into a tribute of devotion to the Holy Eucharist. In every Church is prepared a richly ornamented side- chapel or pavilion, where, after to-day’s Mass, the Church places the Body of her Divine Lord. Though veiled from their view, the Faithful will visit him in this his holy resting-place, pay him their most humble adorations, and present him their most fervent supplications. Wheresoever the Body shall be, there shall the eagles be gathered together. 1 In every part of the Catholic world, a concert of prayer, more loving and earnest than at any other period of the Year, will be offered to our Jesus, in reparation for the outrages he underwent, during these very hours, from the Jews. Around this anticipated Tomb will be united both his long-tried and fervent servants, and those who are newly converted, or are preparing for their reconciliation.”

-- The Liturgical Year: Maundy Thursday
Another interesting point that Fortescue makes about the locus aptus is that there is no mention of a cross being placed there (though often the urn is ornamented with one on its top); another sign that this is not somewhere for Mass to be celebrated. Also, the urn is not generally made of metal (though there are exceptions to this, such as Bentley's urn at Westminster Cathedral); they are wooden and gilded. Again: a simplification.

The Urn at Westminster Cathedral containing the pre-Reformation chalice it was designed for
Several sources also state that the urn should be elevated (specifying the provision of steps for the deacon to place the chalice in the urn). We can see there influences of forty hours and also Our Lord being high and lifted up and drawing all to Himself.

The locus aptus of Santissima Trinita, Rome

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