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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.

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Click for a larger image

Compare to the before version:

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Thanks to Allan Eckert for the image.

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Architect Adam Hermanson shares these design images of the sacramental furnishings.

Main Altar:

Main Altar 112009

Altar of Repose:

Ambo:

Ambo

Baptismal Font:

Baptismal Font

See also:

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The Holy Trinity maintenance staff have done a great job preparing a temporary home that is both functional and reverent.  Here is a quick look at our new church in the gym:

Up the main aisle:

Gym-church-1

The altar and the ambo:

Gym-church-2

A close-up of the altars of sacrifice and repose:

Gym-church-3

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What is an Altar?

baldicchino

The Creative Minority Report has a great quote on the Catholic view of the altar. This is by Geoffrey Webb, from his 1939 book The Liturgical Altar:

“The reason for [the Church’s] meticulous directions is to be found in the supreme importance which the Church attaches to the altar in her liturgy. Not only does she consider it the central focus of the whole liturgy, the raison d’être of the building in which its stands; not only does she indicate that the church exists for the altar, rather than the altar for the church; not only does she look upon it as the sacrificial stone, upon which Christ, our Priest and Victim, offers Himself daily in His Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the central act of her liturgy; but she has proclaimed again and again that in her mind the altar represents her Lord Himself. He is Altar, Victim and Priest; and the reverence for the altar, expressed in the restraint and dignity of its design, symbolizes the reverence due to Christ Himself.”

Image courtesy of King Richard’s Religious Antiques.

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From the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

The Altar and Its Appointments

296. The altar on which the Sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs is also the table of the Lord to which the People of God is called together to participate in the Mass, as well as the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist.

297. The celebration of the Eucharist in a sacred place is to be carried out on an altar; but outside a sacred place, it may be carried out on a suitable table, always with the use of a cloth, a corporal, a cross, and candles.

298. It is appropriate to have a fixed altar in every church, since it more clearly and permanently signifies Christ Jesus, the living stone (1 Pt 2:4; cf. Eph 2:20). In other places set aside for sacred celebrations, the altar may be movable.

An altar is called “fixed” if it is attached to the floor so as not to be irremoveable; otherwise it is called “moveable.”

Pentecost 2005299. The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar is usually fixed and is dedicated.

300. An altar whether fixed or movable is dedicated according to the rite prescribed in the Roman Pontifical; but it is permissible for a movable altar simply to be blessed.

Easter 2006301. In keeping with the Church’s traditional practice and the altar’s symbolism, the table of a fixed altar is to be of stone and indeed of natural stone. In the dioceses of the United States of America, however, wood which is worthy, solid, and well-crafted may be used, provided that the altar is structurally immobile. The supports or base for upholding the table, however, may be made of any sort of material, provided it is worthy and solid.

A movable altar may be constructed of any noble and solid materials suited to liturgical use, according to the traditions and usages of the different regions.

Altar May 2006302. The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. Care should be taken, however, to ensure the authenticity of such relics.

303. In building new churches, it is preferable to erect a single altar which in the gathering of the faithful will signify the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.

Images courtesy of Allan Eckert.

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