Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Primacy of the Altar

The Lady Chapel of the Abbey-Church, Downside (UK).
This form of altar - known as an English Altar - with its reredos, paraments and tester over and above all
was the work of the renowned English architect Sir Ninian Comper.
The altar, by its manner of decoration, is the obvious focal point of this beautiful chapel.
The photograph was taken by a friend of the Saint Bede Studio, Father Lawrence Lew OP.

“The altar of holy Church is Christ, as John testifies, when he says in his Apocalypse that he saw him as a golden altar standing before the throne. In him and through him the gifts of the faithful are offered to God the Father.” This extract from the old Roman Pontifical for the ordination of subdeacons elucidates the teaching of the Church that the altars of our churches signify Christ, although Christ himself is at once the priest, victim and Altar of Sacrifice. The distinguished theologian and liturgist, Canon A. Croegart, emphasises the primacy of the altar in eucharistic devotion: “Without the eucharistic sacrifice, there would be no communion; without communion, there would be no reserved sacrament, nor any of the other forms of devotion connected with the worship of the reserved sacrament. Everything depends upon the altar, yet this order of importance is all too frequently ignored.” His conclusion is obvious, yet startling: “the altar is not an ornament of the church, but rather..the church is an architectural ornament housing and covering the altar. [1] The jewel does not exist for the casket, but the casket is adapted to and serves the jewel...Therefore, it is important that the altar should be prominent in the church. By its central position and sumptuousness, the altar should, straightaway, draw the attention of those who enter the church.” [2]

Astonishingly, in recent decades, as a manifestation of faulty understandings of the nature of the Mass, sanctuaries have been re-arranged (or built anew) to make THREE or more focal points : the altar, the "president's" chair and the ambo. Such an arrangement is a complete innovation, having no precedent in the history of the Church's liturgy and architecture. Such arrangements have done, in fact, positive harm in the name of liturgical purism : they have skewed the Faithful's understanding of the Mass and created spaces not of worship, but of obscure novelty.

The creation of a variety of focal points for the furnishings of the sanctuary, none of which is aligned with a central axis.
The ugliness of this arrangement can only destroy recollection of the sacred.
Catholic Student's Chapel at the University of California, Berkeley USA.

[1]          The consecration of the altar and the church, which sets them apart permanently for the purposes of divine worship, is the primary reason for the sacredness of a church. Consequently, the notion that removing the Blessed Sacrament from view somehow makes it permissible to stage concerts and other secular events within a church is misguided.
[2]            Canon A. Croegart, The Mass: A Liturgical Commentary (vol. one), 1958, pp. 4-5.