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Doug wrote:

Hi, guys —

  • Within the Catholic faith, what does the "Stripping of the Altar" entail during Holy Week?
  • And, what is its origin and meaning?

I have seen it done in a Lutheran Church and heard about it in the Episcopal Church.


  { What does "Stripping of the Altar" entail and what the origin and meaning of this practice? }

Fr. Jonathan replied:

Hi, Doug —

After the Holy Thursday Liturgy we "strip the altar" meaning we take everything out of the Sanctuary that we can. All statues and cloths and candles and everything that is movable leaving the altar area as bare as possible to best demonstrate the bareness of the cross and help us reflect on the emptiness of the world without Christ.

Most importantly of all, the Tabernacle is emptied and the door is left open.

Frankly each year it reminds me of going into Churches of other faiths where they do not have the Eucharist as we know it. They feel empty and this is the feeling one should have meditating during Good Friday until the lights come up at the Easter Vigil during the Gloria and we feel the hope of the Resurrection and Jesus is once again restored at Communion time.

Hope this helps,

Fr. Jonathan

Mike replied:

Hi, Doug —

I haven't been able to find much on the origins of stripping the altar.

These articles may help:

Under the WikiArticle: Mass of the Lord's Supper

Stripping of the Altar

At a suitable time after the Mass of the Lord's Supper the altar is stripped without ceremony, and crosses in the church are removed or covered. All altars are stripped except the Altar of Repose. (In the 1962 missal, such stripping is the last ceremony in the Holy Thursday service. If white crucifix covers were used, they are then replaced with the usual violet ones for crucifixes remaining in the church on Good Friday.)

New Advent also had an article in the 1909 Catholic encyclopedia that was interesting. If the highlighted ceremony at the end is referring to the Stripping of the Altar, which I assume it is, the practice of Stripping the Altar would go back to sixth century as that was when St. Isidore and St. Eligius lived.

Stripping of an Altar

On Holy Thursday the celebrant, having removed the ciborium from the high altar, goes to the sacristy. He there lays aside the white vestments and puts on a violet stole, and, accompanied by the deacon, also vested in violet stole, and the subdeacon, returns to the high altar. Whilst the antiphon "Diviserunt sibi" and the psalm "Deus, Deus meus" are being recited, the celebrant and his assistants ascend to the predella and strip the altar of the altar-cloths, vases of flowers, antipendium, and other ornaments, so that nothing remains but the cross and the candlesticks with the candles extinguished. In the same manner all the other altars in the church are denuded. If there be many altars in the church, another priest, vested in surplice and violet stole, may strip them whilst the celebrant is stripping the high altar. The Christian altar represents Christ, and the stripping of the altar reminds us how He was stripped of his garments when He fell into the hands of the Jews and was exposed naked to their insults. It is for this reason that the psalm "Deus, Deus meus" is recited, wherein the Messias speaks of the Roman soldiers dividing His garments among them. This ceremony signifies the suspension of the Holy Sacrifice. It was formerly the custom in some churches on this day to wash the altars with a bunch of hyssop dipped in wine and water, to render them in some manner worthy of the Lamb without stain who is immolated on them, and to recall to the minds of the faithful with how great purity they should assist at the Holy Sacrifice and receive Holy Communion. St. Isidore of Seville (De Eccles. Off, I, xxviii) and St. Eligius of Noyon (Homil. VIII, De Coena Domini) say that this ceremony was intended as an homage offered to Our Lord, in return for the humility wherewith He deigned to wash the feet of His disciples.

Hope this helps,


John replied:

It's funny Fr. Jonathan should mention the "feeling" he gets walking into a Protestant Church being akin to the "feeling" he gets walking in to a Catholic Church on Good Friday.

I've noticed the same thing, every year since 1996, when I returned to the Church.


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