The most important object in every Catholic church is the altar. An altar is a table-like structure upon which is offered a sacrifice to God. In the worship rituals of the Old Testament, a sacrifice of an animal or grains would be offered to the Lord on the altar. The sacrifice would then be burned, the rising smoke serving as a fragrant offering to the Lord. There were many altars erected in the land of Israel, but eventually the Jerusalem Temple became the only place where blood sacrifices to the Lord were permitted under the Law. The most important of these sacrifices, of course, was the annual sacrifice of an unblemished lamb at Passover, which was then eaten in a meal commemorating the liberation of the Ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Passover sacrifice, of course, found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, followed by His offering of Himself on the cross on Good Friday. When we come together for the celebration of Mass, we unite ourselves to Jesus, God the Son, and His eternal act of self-gift to God the Father in the Holy Spirit. This eternal act is made present on the altar through the action of the priest. Thus, in a mysterious way, the altars in our Catholic churches connect us to the eternal place of offering in the heart of the Most Holy Trinity.
Ok, that might sound like a lot. But wait, there’s more! The altar is the place of sacrifice, but it is also the table of the Supper of the Lord. It is with Christ’s sacrifice, which is made present on the altar, that the Church is nourished with the Eucharist, the fulfillment of the sacrificed lamb shared at the Passover meal. Thus, we see that the Mass is both a saving sacrifice and a sacred meal – Christ’s offering of His Body and Blood to save the living and the dead, and His offering of His Body and Blood as our food of eternal life.
As an image of Christ, the center of our worship, the altar takes central place in the church building. Altars should be beautiful, since Christ is beautiful. And because Our Lord is immoveable in His fidelity to the Church, altars should be fixed in place rather than easily moved around. This weekend, parishioners who attend Mass at St. Gabriel Church will notice a new altar in the sanctuary. This beautiful altar was originally commissioned by Mr. Sam Cingari and designed and built by Mr. Phil DeFelice for use in the chapel of Trinity Catholic High School, where Masses were said upon it for over a decade. It is a more fitting altar for worship than what we had been using at St. Gabriel’s, which was a temporary structure, consisting of a foldable table frame with a removeable decorative screen, whose color could be changed with the liturgical season. Our new altar even contains within it the relic of a saint, a tradition that goes back to the days when the Mass was celebrated in the catacombs over the tombs of martyrs. According to Mr. DeFelice, at the time of its installation at Trinity Catholic, students placed prayer intentions inside the altar. These will remain in place. I’m grateful to those who provided the former altar on which Mass was celebrated at St. Gabriel’s, and to those who made possible the transfer of the new altar to our church. It is a beautiful new addition to our beautiful Church of St. Gabriel, and a most fitting place for us to gather for the Supper of the Lamb.