In today’s bulletin, Father Hilton writes:
THE STORY OF OUR NEW ALTAR
During my sermon last weekend I said that our new altar is called a “Tomb Altar.” Why? Because it is shaped as a tomb, and this is one of the earliest types of altar in the Catholic Church, because they were built over the relics of the saints who were martyred for love of Christ. Many of you know that every altar in old Catholic churches contained a relic of a martyr saint, and then, when persecutions ceased, of other saints, such as St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Charles Borromeo. Sometimes cities would fight over the right to bury a saint under their altars; for instance, if a saint was born in one town but died in another, both places would claim “ownership” of the relics. Why was this so important? Possibly because of a passage in the Bible. In fact, St. John, in Revelation 6:9 tells us that “I saw under the altar the souls of the them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.”
In fact, it is probable that this Revelation verse was the reason why Pope Felix I, in 279 A.D. decreed that “Mass should be celebrated above the tombs of martyrs.” This practice was so taken to heart by the people that, beginning in the middle ages it was a rule that no altar could be consecrated unless it contained a relic or relics.
With the development of the relic-custom the square box shape of an “altar-tomb” became the norm, and gradually the original table-shaped form disappeared. The altar then, became not only the most sacred place in the church because it was the place where bread and wine would be transubstantiated into the precious Body and Blood of Christ; it was also the resting place of those who had either been martyred for the sake of Christ, or who had shown heroic Christian virtues during their lives (the saints). That’s why these altars were crafted with great care, using the best of materials. Anyone going to pilgrimage in Europe or in the Holy Land will be able to see altars made even of gold and silver. Such an altar still remains in in the Cathedral of Saint Ambrose at Milan, dating from the 9th century.
Our new altar, at Holy Trinity, is not quite as elaborate as that, but it is beautifully made of marble, and a relic of St. Charles Borromeo (whose body lies in state in a crystal urn, which forms the base of an altar in the crypt of the Cathedral of Milan) rests within it. Thus we also, at Holy Trinity, can say that the words of Revelations apply to us: “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.” While St. Charles did not spill his blood to give witness to God, his life was certainly a powerful witness to the love which he bore for the Lord.