The Catholic altar has always been a table or a tomb. This double form has perpetuated through the ages the remembrance of the institution of the Eucharist and of the burial of Our Lord. The cloth that covered the table at the last supper, the winding-sheet of the Saviour’s embalming, are recalled to our love by the white linens spread upon it. The altar, the eucharistic table, the mystical tomb, is, above all, the holy mountain where Jesus Christ transfigures and immolates Himself at the same time; raised as it is above the ground, it appears to us always as a Thabor and a Calvary. Happier we than the apostle, for we can make for ourselves there a perpetual dwelling-place, even in the heart of the divine Saviour.
The Sacred Stone
During the Mass the priest often kisses the middle of the altar. In this spot is a stone become, by the consecration of the bishop, a figure of Jesus Christ. Like the Word of God, it has received the sacred unction; like Him, it bears the mark of five wounds, and these are also made by the hammer and iron; like the Lamb of God, of Whom not one of the bones was broken (Exodus 12:46), the sacred stone is entire, cut from a single piece. He who loves Our Lord will understand these kisses so often repeated; the Church wishes to make reparation during the holy sacrifice for all the outrages of the passion – the derisive genuflections of the Jews replaced by the genuflections of the priest; the perfidious kiss of treason by the respectful kiss of love. In the sacred stone is enclosed a little tomb, sealed by the arms of the bishop; with the relics of the saints is laid herein three grains of incense. Here again is a reminder of the burial, and the different perfumes which Jesus Christ then received from the piety of His disciples – the aromatic herbs of Joseph of Arimathea, of Magdalen, and the holy women.
Relics in the Altar
In his marvellous vision Saint John saw “under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God.” (Apocalypse 6:9.) The Church militant, heir of their holy relics, and following the steps of her sister in heaven, has placed them under the altar of sacrifice. This custom, observed from the earliest days of Christianity, teaches us how we should receive Jesus Christ in holy communion.
Our heart becomes an altar where Our Lord consummates His sacrifice, and upon this living altar He wishes to see the blessed wounds of a martyr. The saints have tasted in communion ineffable sweetness; recompense, we may be sure, of the immolation which they made of themselves each day. It is easy for us to experience this; let us prepare ourselves for such a solemn act by the sacrifice of our tastes, of our passions, as the Hebrews ate the paschal lamb with bitter herbs. The Eucharist will then bear in us the most abundant fruit; it will be the grain of wheat sown in our hearts, to grow there till the resurrection, the day of blossoming and of harvest; the heavenly wine, which maketh virgin those hearts inclined to evil; the divine fire, which will give to the weak the courage of the lion.
The rich materials which cover the place where the Blessed Sacrament rests, even the name given it, recall the tabernacle of the Old Law, in which the ark of the covenant was kept, one of the prophetic figures of the sacrament of our altars. Its most ordinary form is that of a tower; this symbol of strength could not be more suitably employed than in sheltering Him Whom Saint Augustine so well calls “the bread of the strong.”
Above the tabernacle is the cross. Its presence alone in this place speaks simply and eloquently: “It is here that Jesus Christ renews the sacrifice of Calvary. The cross raised by deicidal hands remains always laden; love forever fastens to it the divine victim. His arms extended call the sinner to return and to pardon; His lips never cease to utter the great prayer of mercy: ‘Father, forgive them;’ grace flows from His heart in torrents.” Christian souls, all these things the crucifix, by its wounds, says to you each day.
Doubtless they recall to us that the catacombs were the cradle of the Church and her first temple; that the divine mysteries were there celebrated by the light of torches. This touching reminder of the persecuted Church should not be lost sight of.
But if it were merely as a reminder of the bloody period of the Church’s martyrdom that candles were used, why demand wax for the altar-lights? The anxiety of the Church on this point shows us that there is here some mystery. “Wax,” says Monsignor de Cony, summing up the teaching of all the liturgists, “is one of the most expressive symbols furnished the Church by nature to express allegorically the holy humanity of Jesus Christ. The earliest doctors dwell on the virginity of the bees, and the purity of that substance drawn from the nectar of the most exquisite flowers, and compare these things to the conception of the Saviour in the pure womb of Mary. The whiteness of the wax, laboriously obtained, signifies again the glory of Jesus Christ, the result of His sufferings; then the flame, mounting from that column of wax which it consumes, is the divinity of Jesus Christ, manifesting itself by the sacrifice of His humanity, and illuminating the world.” “It is not, then, to lighten the darkness of the sanctuary, let us say with Saint Isidore, that the altar-candles are lighted, because the sun is shining, but this light is a sign of joy, and it represents Him of Whom the Gospel says: “He is the true light.”
During the holy mysteries, when thick darkness clouds our soul, let us beg God, the eternal light, to scatter this gloomy night. If at the foot of this new Calvary our heart is indifferent and frozen, let us pray God. infinite love, to melt it in His fires. There will come a day when this blessed light will be, for those who have despised it, the fire of justice; O Lord, inspire my heart with such a profound horror of sin that I may escape the flames of Thy vengeance.
The Sanctuary Lamp
In honor of Jesus Christ a lamp burns perpetually before the altar. The Christian soul longs to remain in constant adoration at the feet of Our Lord, there to be consumed by gratitude and love. In heaven alone will this happiness be given to us, but here below, as an expression of our devout desires, we place a lamp in the sanctuary to take our place. In this little light Saint Augustine shows us an image of the three Christian virtues. Its clearness is faith, which enlightens our mind; its warmth is love, which fills our heart; its flame, which, trembling and agitated, mounts upward till it finds rest in its centre, is hope, with its aspirations toward heaven, and its troubles outside of God.
May our heart watch in the sanctuary under the eye of God! During the labors of the day nothing is easier than to fly there in thought, to offer to Jesus Christ our pain, our weariness, our actions.
At night let us place ourselves at the feet of Jesus, and say: While I sleep I wish to love Thee and bless Thee always; here would I take my rest. If many Christians were faithful to this pious practice, it would not be merely a faint and solitary lamp which would illumine the holy place, but thousands of hearts would shed there their sparkling rays of light.
The heavenly Jerusalem has her sacrifice, and also her altar. Saint John thus describes it: “The altar of gold had seven golden candlesticks, and in the midst was the Son of man, shining like the snow by the whiteness of His garments, and more brilliant than the sun by reason of the splendor of His face.” (Apocalypse 1)
It is, then, reminders of heaven which the Church constantly places before the eyes of her children; how can we help thinking of it when all around us speaks of it: the altar, the candlesticks, the Eucharist?
Upon the altar in heaven was also a mysterious book, sealed with seven seals, and which no man could open. The lion of the tribe of Juda, Jesus Christ, came, and His triumphant hand broke the seals. The resemblance here is easily traced. The book which contains the prayers of the liturgy is placed upon the altar before the sacrifices, but it remains closed; only the priest, representing Jesus Christ, has the right to open it.
In the West Latin is the language of the liturgy of the Church. However, certain Greek words, such as Kyrie eleison, and some Hebrew expressions, like alleluia, amen, sabaoth, have been enshrined in this rich casket, that the language of the Christian sacrifice may recall the inscription placed above the Saviour’s cross, which was written, says the evangelist, in Hebrew, in Greek, and in Latin.