Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Altar and its Furnishings

First in a Series treating the Symbolism of the Traditional Form of Holy Mass

Fr. François Xavier Schouppe, S.J.

For the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, a stone altar is necessary, and on it there should be placed a crucifix, wax candles lighted, a missal, a chalice and paten with its veil, a corporal, and bread and wine, the matter of the sacrifice. To the articles already mentioned, we may also add the thurible and the tabernacle.

Foreground: Altar prepared for Holy Mass.
Background: Credence table with vested chalice, missal

The Altar

The altar is a sacred table upon which the oblation is placed, that the Almighty might vouchsafe to receive it. The Eucharistic altar ought to be made of stone, and be consecrated by a bishop, and have deposited therein some relics of the Holy Martyrs. It should be raised above the grade of the steps, and be covered with three linen cloths, the outer one hanging down on both sides so as to touch the floor.

The altar denotes Christ, in whom and through whom every oblation and act of worship are offered to God. As the altar is the support of the sacrifice from which the oblation ascends in the odor of sweetness, and without which it would return to the earth, never again to arise, so Christ is the support and strength of every sacrifice and act of worship, for nothing can be offered acceptably to God except by and through Christ.

The altar is made of stone, first, because it denotes Christ who is the Mystical Stone, a name often applied to Him in the Sacred Scriptures. He is called the Foundation Stone, the Corner Stone, the Stone or Rock of the Desert: "and the rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4), the rock which, being struck, not by the rod of Moses, but by that of the passion, pours forth most copiously the waters of divine grace. The altar is made of stone, second, because it is symbolic of solidity, and shows how the divine worship is most firmly established on Christ.

The altar stone is anointed with oil to denote Christ who is anointed with divinity, anointed with the priesthood, anointed with the fullness and abundance of the Holy Spirit which operates unto the sanctification of all Christians.

Altar stone with open reliquary
The consecrated altar contains the relics of the Holy Martyrs, their bones and ashes, first, because in ancient times, the tombs in which they were interred were turned into altars, and the Holy Sacrifice offered thereon: and, second, because it manifests the intimate union of Christ with the faithful in the same sacrifice. The martyrs laid down their lives, in union with and by virtue of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. It is for this that the altar is made in the form of a tomb.

The altar is always erected in a high place, above the floor of the Church. This is done, first, that the priest may easily be seen by the faithful who assist at the Holy Sacrifice; second, because it represents Mount Calvary; third, because it denotes the elevation of the soul from earthly attractions, a disposition necessary to all those who would honor God in spirit and in truth: and fourth, because it outlines the mediation which is performed on the altar between heaven and earth, God and man, through Christ who is the principal mediator, and through the priest,who is the secondary mediator, on which account the priest, who offers the Holy Sacrifice, is placed between heaven and earth.

The altar is covered with three linen cloths. These are used, in the first place, to receive reverently the Most Precious Blood in case of accidental spilling: and, in the second place, to mark the purity and cleanliness due to the material on which are placed the sacred gifts to be offered to the Almighty. Not only should the gift offered be pure, but it is likewise necessary to present it in a pure manner. Accordingly, the white linen cloth is symbolic of the purity which ought to be brought to the Holy Sacrifice.

The three linen cloths are used to signify great purity: not only external, but internal - the purity which is acquired with unceasing labor, the threefold purity of the intellect, the heart and the hand, or the purity of thought, word and deed. To this, it may be added, that the linen cloth which hangs down so as to touch the floor indicates that the perfect purity which should adorn the whole man from head to foot: that purity which our Lord Himself reminds us of in the washing of the feet of His disciples.

The Crucifix

Altar crucifix with candlesticks
The image of the Crucified raised upon the altar indicates that the Eucharistic altar is a true Calvary, in which the bloody sacrifice of Christ is renewed in an unbloody manner. The crucifix is placed in a conspicuous position, so that it may attract the eyes and hearts of all towards it: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to Myself" (John 12:32). The cross denotes the triumph of our crucified Lord who, in expiring upon it, conquered the world by faith and who, moreover, on the day of the general judgment will conquer it still more completely by His justice.

The Lights

The candlesticks and candles crown the altar, not only as a sign of honor and joy, but also as representing Christ, the Lord, who is the light of the world and, as it were, a brand from heaven casting fire into the world that it may be enkindled by Divine Love: "I am come to cast fire on the earth; and what will I, but that it be kindled?" (Luke 12:49) They represent, likewise, the hearts of the faithful, which, illumined by the light of Christ and inflamed by His fire, are ever consumed unto the honor of God. Finally, the lights used in the masses and offices of the dead remind all of the everlasting light of glory reserved for the faithful departed.

The Missal

The sacred book, which was formerly called the Sacramentarium, but now is called the Missal or Mass-book, contains the holy prayers and gospels which are recited in the mass. This sacred book denotes the Church, or, to speak more correctly, it denotes Christ Himself who speaks to us in its pages. In ancient times, it was customary to enclose it in a case of gold and even at present, it is found frequently embellished and ornamented with gold, silver, and pearl. The embellishment of the missal is symbolic of the heavenly treasures contained in the divine word, the gold and gems of celestial wisdom.

The Chalice and Paten

Chalice with priest's paten
The chalice and paten, made of gold or silver, are consecrated with sacred oil, in order that they may contain the matter of the sacrifice, even the consecrated species. On the paten is placed unleavened bread, which is afterwards changed into the body of Christ. In the chalice is poured the wine with a little water, which is subsequently changed into the blood of Christ. The Church employs these sacred vessels in her service to represent the hearts of the faithful, which are living sacred vessels containing the treasures of Christ. On account of the great respect manifested for all that concerns our Divine Lord, these vessels are made of the most precious materials and consecrated by the bishop and, hence, we are reminded of the great value of our souls which were redeemed by the most precious blood of the Saviour and sanctified with the unction, that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit. The chalice, moreover, is a symbol of the holy alliance existing between God and man, as well as a symbol of opulence, of fraternity, etc.

Chalice veil and burse
The chalice and paten, which stand in the centre of the altar, are covered with a veil. This is symbolic, first, of the veil of faith; second, of the Eucharistic veil which conceals the body of Christ; and third, the veil of blindness covering the eyes of the Jewish people and all sinful men.

The Corporal

The corporal is a clean linen napkin which is spread out on the altar, at full length, at the beginning of mass and on which the Sacred Host or the body of Christ is placed. It is used to commemorate the linen winding sheet in which our Lord's inanimate body was shrouded by Joseph of Arimathea. The corporal is a symbol of that purity of soul in which the Lord delights to take up His abode.

The Bread and the Wine

The bread used as the matter of the Holy Sacrifice must be made from the purest wheat, unleavened and of a circular form. The wine employed for the consecration of the chalice must be extracted from the grape and mixed with a little water.

The Lord desired this to be the matter of the sacrifice, not only because bread and wine are found everywhere on earth, but also to disclose to us a number of the mysteries of faith.

In the first place, bread and wine, which form the food of man, signify that Christ our Lord, the Divine Victim, is the healthful nutriment of our souls. They signify, in the second place, the union of the faithful amongst themselves and with Christ, for as the bread is made up of many grains, and the wine from numerous grapes, so the one mystical body of Christ is formed from the multitude of the faithful. They signify, in the third place, the mortification which every one must endure to be united with Christ, for just as wheat, in order to be made into bread, must be ground in the mill and treated with water and heat, in like manner a faithful soul, to be intimately united with Christ and live with His spirit, must die to himself. 

Altar bread
This bread is known as the azymes, or the bread made without ferment, such as our Lord used at the Last Supper. It indicates the purity of soul which all should acquire and which is obtained only through Christ. Leavened bread is not used, for the leaven denotes vice, concupiscence and the principle of all corruption. "Know ye not that a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump? Purge out the old leaven that ye may be a new paste, as you are unleavened." (1 Cor. 5:6-7)

The Host is of a circular form because the circle is the most perfect of figures and is symbolic of eternity or infinity. On this account, it is the most appropriate figure to represent the presence of Him who is infinite in duration, infinite in immensity, infinite in love, and infinite also in the merits of His sacrifice.

When the wine is poured into the chalice, it is mixed with a few drops of water. Our Lord Himself is believed to have made use of this mixture. The mixture of wine and water reminds us, in the first place, of the open side of Christ whence blood and water issued profusely; in the second place, it denotes the admirable union of the divine and the human nature which our Lord cemented in His Incarnation and through which we are made partakers of the divinity, a union specially effected through the Holy Eucharist, by sanctifying grace and the glory of the next life; and in the third place, it represents the union of the faithful with Christ in one mystical body.

The Thurible

The thurible, which in ancient times was used in the temple by Aaron, and which is now used in the sanctuary of Christ, is a vessel in which incense is burned and then offered to the Lord as a mark of the highest respect. The thurible is a symbol of Christ's humanity wherein is hidden the fullness of the divinity as a consuming fire. It is, also, a symbol of Christ who is the well-spring of all graces, which, like most fragrant odors, are diffused over the whole world. The thurible is, moreover, an image of the Church which has within her keeping the celestial fire of the divine spirit and which, the more she is disturbed by tribulations, the more copiously she emits the fragrance of her virtues. Finally, the thurible is a type of the soul inflamed by the fire of charity, as is denoted by the words of the celebrant: "May the Lord kindle in us the fire of His love and the flame of eternal charity." 

The Tabernacle

Veiled Tabernacle
The Tabernacle, in which Christ in the Eucharist vouchsafes to dwell amongst men and which is quite commonly placed on the altar itself, was prefigured in the Tabernacle of the Old Law. The Almighty commanded a Tabernacle to be erected and gave directions for its construction. Moses scrupulously obeyed the order and built it in the desert. On its completion, all considered it a memorial of the past and a figure of the future wonders of the Deity. The Tabernacle built by Moses was divided by a veil into two parts: one of which was called the Sanctum or Holy Place; the other, the Sanctuarium or the Holy of Holies. In that part called the Sanctum or Holy Place, there stood the golden candlesticks, the golden altar of incense, and the golden table containing the bread of proposition. In the other part known as the Holy of Holies, only the Ark of the Covenant was kept. This Ark was constructed of incorruptible wood and was adorned, within and without, with the purest gold. The manna, the flowering rod of Aaron, and the tables of the law written by the finger of the Almighty were preserved therein. Two cherubim with extended wings stood over the cover of the ark in such a way as to form a throne known as the Propitiatory, where the divine majesty resided amongst his people and delivered His sublime oracles.

This, however, was but a mere figure of the Tabernacle of the New Law, which, in turn, is but a figure of the eternal and ever glorious tabernacle of heaven. Whatever may be said of heaven may with propriety be said of the Eucharistic Tabernacle. "Behold the Tabernacle of God with men and He will dwell with them." (Apoc. 21:3) On our Tabernacle, as on the one of the Old Law, there is placed a veil and close by candlesticks, sacred bread, incense, the Ark of the Covenant, manna, the flowering rod, and the Divine Law, written by the finger of God. All these may be noted and contemplated in the one Eucharistic Christ.

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