Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Christian Altar- Part 1

Some interesting history follows in answer to these questions. Some of this I learned in a Sacramental and Liturgical Theology class. Much I did not know. Nevertheless, it provides the reader with a much deeper sense and appreciation of the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass, the central act of Catholic worship.
Why does the study of the externals of the Mass begin with an explanation of the meaning and scope of the liturgy? What does the word mean? To what did it refer in the Old Law? What divisions of public worship does the Christian liturgy embrace? What is the liturgy?

What features of the Old Testament liturgy are described in the Book of Exodus? How does the Church exercise her right to legislate in regard to the liturgy today?

What does the Latin word "altus" mean? How and where were the primitive altars of the Old Law erected? How is the custom continued today? In what two ways is the Christian altar commemorative? What was the first Christian altar? Where may we see two wooden-table altars that are believed to have come down from apostolic times?

Why did the altar retain the character of a wooden table during the early centuries? What type of table altar was used in the catacombs? What advantage did it offer?

Why does the Church discriminate in favor of stone altars? What and where were the first stone altars? How were they made? Of what form were the altars which were erected in churches and chapels?

How did the "confessio" style of altar originate? Describe it. Why were the relics of the martyrs left undisturbed? Why is St. Peter's in Rome the most famous basilica in the world?

Of what three parts does a fixed altar consist? How must a fixed altar be constructed? How is it consecrated? How may it lose the consecration? Where is the sepulchre placed? In a consecrated church, which altar should be fixed? What is a portable altar or altar stone? What is the symbolism of the crosses? By what ceremony does the priest honor the relics during the Mass? How do missionaries carry altar stones from place to place?

Since the words "liturgy," "liturgical," and "liturgist" will appear' frequently in this study of the externals of the Mass, and for the further reason that these "externals" themselves are subject to liturgical rules and prescriptions, we shall give a brief explanation of the meaning and scope of the liturgy and its relation to Catholic worship.

DEFINITION: Liturgy comes from two Greek words meaning public and work - hence a public work or service. In Old Testament times it referred to the temple service which was conducted by the priests for and in the name of the people.

The Christian liturgy has developed from its beginning at the Last Supper into a complex system which embraces the Mass, the Divine Office, the sacraments, the sacramentals, the celebration of the liturgical year, and various blessings and processions. The liturgy then, is the very life of the Church - the public and official worship of the Mystical Body of Christ.

LITURGY OF THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS: In the Book of Exodus, which relates the "going out" of the Israelites from Egypt, we read how God made a covenant with His people, set up an altar, and instituted a priesthood and liturgy. He prescribed every detail of the worship which was to be offered to Him and gave Moses explicit instructions in regard to the taber­nacle, the Ark of the Covenant, the golden candlestick with its seven lamps, the altar of incense, the brazen laver, the oil of unction, and the holy vestments of Aaron. God then directed that Beseleel and Ooliab should make all these things as He had commanded (Exodus XXV to XXXI).

Today (*) the Church in the exercise of her divine mission makes definite demands and requirements in regard to the altar, the tabernacle, the sacred vessels and vestments, in fact, everything ordered by ecclesiastical law for the becoming celebration of the Mass. The origin and history of these accessories of divine worship, their liturgical and symbolical significance, together with an explanation of the rules which govern their use, will be the subjects of these lessons.

THE CHRISTIAN ALTAR: The word altar comes from the Latin "altus," which means "high." The primitive altars of the Old Law, which were of neces­sity very simple, consisted of heaps of earth or stones built upon mounds or on the tops of hills. The Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob erected altars on heights and in localities that were hallowed by memorable events or sanctified by special manifestations of the presence of God. The Christians did not depart from this custom but raised their altars higher than the other parts of the church. The Christian altar is also commemorative in two essential characteristics: It is a table recalling the Last Supper at which our Lord instituted the Holy Euchar­ist; and it is a tomb recalling the days when the holy Sacrifice was celebrated in the catacombs over the tombs of the martyrs.

The first Christian altar was the long, narrow, wooden table in the Cenacle, the dining room where our Lord and His apostles partook of the Last Supper. It is piously believed that this table is still preserved in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome. It is rough and discolored by age and only on rare occasions is it exposed for veneration. In the Church of St. Pudentiana, which was form­erly the house of Senator Pudens and his wife Priscilla, there are fragments of another wooden table on which, according to tradition, St. Peter celebrated Mass. This table is now encased in a marble altar and is reserved for the use of the Holy Father.

WOODEN-TABLE ALTARS: The altar retained the character of a table during the first five centuries. Because of the almost continuous persecution of the Christians, it was necessary to celebrate Mass in crypts, private homes, in the open air, and finally in the burial vaults of the catacombs. A fresco (wall paint­ing) in the catacomb of St. Callistus shows a tripod table at which a celebrant stands offering the holy Sacrifice. These small tables seem to have been in com­mon use in the narrow corridors of the catacombs. Since the danger of discovery was always imminent, they could easily be moved about from place to place. The use of movable wooden tables, while never the rule, was discontinued in favor of the stone altar during the fourth century.

STONE ALTARS: Whenever it was practical, stone altars were used for the celebration of the Mass. The Church discriminated in favor of stone because of its durability and monumental character, and for the further reason that in the holy Scriptures it is frequently referred to as a symbol of our Lord. St. Paul says ". . . and the rock was Christ" (I Cor. 10:4). St. Peter, recalling the prophecy of Isaias, writes of Him as ". . . the stone which the builders. rejected, the same is made the head of the corner" (I Peter 2:7). The first stone altars were the tombs of the martyrs who were interred in the catacombs. These altars were made by cutting an arch-like niche in the tufa or soft stone wall above the burial place.

The sepulchres rose about three feet from the floor and often con­tained the remains of two or more persons. A slab of marble called a "mensa" or table was placed horizontally across the top of the tomb. On feast days and other anniversaries, Mass was celebrated there in honor of those who had died for the faith. One of the first forms of stone altars erected in churches and chapels above ground, consisted of a square or oblong slab of stone supported by columns from one to six in number.

THE "CONFESSIO": About the sixth century there came into existence a new type of altar which grew out of the custom of depositing the bodies of the martyrs under the altars of the churches. Such an altar was called a "confessio" because it was the resting place of a confessor of the faith - a saint who had given his life confessing Christ. In appearance these altars resembled stone chests. The front panel was an ornamental grating through which the fully ex­tended body of the saint might be seen. The altar slab rested over the tomb.

Before this time there was a universal sentiment against disturbing the relics of the martyrs, and whenever the Church wished to honor one of its saints an altar was placed directly over the tomb or as near to it as possible. A basilica - a judgment hall, a court room, or literally a king's house - was then erected over the altar.

The most famous basilica of this type is St. Peter's in Rome. The body of St. Peter, which has never been disturbed, lies below the floor level and at some distance from the high altar. Since the fourth century this has been the most highly venerated martyr's shrine in the Western Church. "The cult of relics" also led to the custom of erecting more than one altar in the same church.

FIXED AND PORTABLE ALTARS: A fixed altar consists of three parts: (1) A table or top of stone; (2) The support, which may be either solid masonry or stone columns; and (3) The sepulchre for the entombment of the relics. The table or altar slab must be joined permanently to the base, with which it is con­secrated as a whole. The base, or at least the columns which support the table, must also be of stone. If the table or "mensa" is separated from the lower structure, the altar loses its consecration. Either the table or the base must contain a sepulchre for the relics of the saints. In a consecrated church, at least one, preferably the main altar, should be fixed.

A portable altar is a simple, small, consecrated stone slab. It can then be inserted in an altar table and removed without losing the consecration. A port­able altar is also called an altar stone. An altar stone usually measures about ten by twelve inches and need only be large enough to hold the sacred Host and a greater part of the bases of the chalice and ciborium. Five Greek crosses are cut in its upper surface, one at each corner and one in the center, reminders of the five sacred wounds of our Lord. Near the front edge is the sepulchre or cavity in which the relics of the saints are sealed. This is the spot which the priest kisses so frequently.

Army chaplains, missionaries, and priests who are obliged to travel long distances..., often carry with them a Mass kit, which contains an altar stone which is described as "about the size of two hands." The old missionaries' expression, "carrying one's sacristy in one's saddle-bags" orig­inated from the custom of strapping a Mass kit upon a horse's back.
Adapted from Altar and Sanctuary, An Exposition of the Externals of the Mass
by Angela A. Glendenin (© 1939)
Published by the Catholic Action Committee
The Catholic Action Series of Discussion Club Textbooks

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