"I have loved, O Lord. the beauty of Thy house and the place where Thy glory dwelleth." Psalm 25:8.
A wealthy Chinese merchant decided to leave his thriving business to one of his three nephews, his only living relatives. He told them: "One of you shall inherit my business. I have a problem. He who solves it best shall be my heir."
He handed each youth a coin, with this direction: "This is a large room. Go buy something that will fill this room as full as possible, but spend no more than the coin I have given you. I shall be waiting for you at sunset."
All day long the trio walked through the market-place. As the shadows lengthened they returned to the house of their uncle, who asked to see what they had purchased.
The first youth dragged a bale of straw into the room, and untied it. The pile hid two walls of the room. The others complimented him. The second brought in two bags of thistledown, which filled half the room. They cheered him. The third was silent a moment before he said: "I gave half my coin to a hungry child. With what was left I bought a flint and this small candle."
He struck the flint and lighted the candle, which filled every corner of the room with its light. The old man blessed him and turned over to him his entire business.
Nobody knows how many candles are being lighted each day on the thousands of Catholic altars throughout the world. Each of those candles is bringing light into the world, yes, into every corner of the world. The candle stands for Christ, the Light of the world. That is why every altar where Mass is said must have candles.
Mother Church has other requirements for the equipment of the altar. [*]
1. It must be covered with three white linen cloths, blessed by the bishop or a priest who has the power. The practical purpose of these cloths is to absorb the Precious Blood should any of It be spilled. They remind us of the linen towels which shrouded the Body of our Savior in the tomb.
They also represent the three-fold mystical Body of Christ - in heaven, in Purgatory, and on the earth - the Communion of Saints. On Holy Thursday they are stripped from the altar to remind us of the shameful stripping of Christ's chaste Body during His sacred passion.
2. On every altar there must be two candles for a Low Mass; four for a High Mass; and six for a Solemn High Mass. In the catacombs these candles served for light. They were even used, by God's order, in the Old Testament.
But the candle is above all a figure of Christ, the Light of our life. The pure wax represents His pure Body. The bright flame represents His divinity shining forth in everything He did and said.
Furthermore, the burning, active flame is a symbol of our active faith, burning itself out for the love of Christ on the altar. It is a symbol of hope and love.
3. The chief requirement of each altar is the crucifix, which reminds priest and people that the Mass is the continuation of the death of Christ on Calvary. To this glorious standard the priest looks repeatedly during Mass. You too should look at the crucifix and remember that you are present at the Holy Sacrifice, just as if you were on Calvary that first Good Fdday.
4. In many churches relics and images of the saints are placed between the candlesticks, and are honored along with the altar. Eloquently they remind us that the Holy Mass was the principal means for making the saints what they were.
5. On the altar must be a Missal or Mass book on a stand. There must be at least one altar card. Usually there are three. These are for the convenience of the celebrant.
6. Costly carpets and artistic laces are often used. The Old Testament even required precious curtains and tapestries.
7. To decorate the altar with flowers is also an ancient, devout and praiseworthy custom. By their lovely colors and their pleasing fragrance they draw our attention and our hearts to the altar. They show the beauty and glory of God in some small way.
Flowers also speak. They tell us of the graces and virtues which we must bring as we approach the holy of holies. They tell us that virtue blossoms best in the atmosphere of the Eucharistic King. They tell us to make our hearts gardens for the God-man to enter.
The old Chinese uncle of our story turned over his business to the youth who lit a candle and lighted up a large room. God will share His riches with us who not only help to light the candles upon the altar, but who also by our contributions and our efforts in parish affairs, help to decorate the altar of God with linens and Mass book and crucifix and flowers.
During each Mass look up to the altar and remember its beautiful meaning and the purpose of its decorations and equipment. Look up at the crucifix and remember that this is the Holy Sacrifice of the cross continued. Look up at the candles and remember that Christ, the true Light, is really and truly present upon the altar.
Look up and notice the linens. They enfold the very Body of Christ present upon that holy table during Mass. Look up at the flowers and remember that you must bring virtues to honor Christ in the Eucharist.
Adapted from Talks on the Mass
by Fr. Arthur Tonne, OFM (© 1950)
[*} Some requirements have been revised since the Second Vatican Council.