Why can’t we put flowers on the altar? We can have flowers around the altar and around the ambo. – Allouez
This is a great question, and thank you for asking. The reason why we do not decorate the altar itself with flowers, or any other ornamentation, is to keep the focus centered on what the altar is (its essence) and what the altar is for (the altar’s proper function).
As to the essence of the altar, the words from the introduction to the “Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar” (ODCA) and our church fathers remind us that, “The altar is Christ” (n. 119). Because it is the place where we participate mystically in the memorial of Christ’s Body and Blood given freely to us, the altar is “… a sign of Christ himself” (ODCA, n. 119).
In regard to the altar’s function, it is the ultimate place of sacrifice. It is the altar upon which Christ, the Paschal Lamb, is once and for all sacrificed for the reparation of our sins.
In light of these understandings, the church asks us to refrain from creating any opportunity of distraction from these realities. As the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” (GIRM) — the document which helps guide us in our worship – states, “Floral decoration should always show moderation and be arranged around the altar rather than on the altar table. For only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the altar table …” (nn. 305 and 306).
Johnson is director of Divine Worship for the Diocese of Green Bay.