'Christ is Priest, Altar and Lamb of Sacrifice' - Blessing of altar at diamond anniversary Mass, St Bernard's, Claremont

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > 'Christ is Priest, Altar and Lamb of Sacrifice' - Blessing of altar at diamond anniversary Mass, St Bernard's, Claremont

The entrance antiphon in the booklet reads: “I will come to the altar of God, to God who restores the joy of my youth.” On this occasion, celebrating the diamond anniversary of St Bernard’s Church, it is fitting that we are blessing the new altar.

The altar is the focus of every Catholic church. Indeed, it is true to say that a church is built to house an altar. At the heart of our Catholic faith is the celebration of the Holy Mass, and the Mass is a sacramental commemoration of the death of Christ, celebrated at the altar. We declare after the consecration: “We proclaim your death, O Lord, and profess your resurrection until you come again.”

One cannot exaggerate the importance of the altar in a Catholic church. As we enter the Church our eyes are naturally drawn towards the altar. It is usually raised from the floor level. It stands in isolation from other features of the sanctuary area. According to the directives of the Vatican Council, it is to be free standing. The Church favours altars built of stone, though readily approves altars built of wood.

The presence of the altar takes us back to the very beginnings of the Old Testament when God, through Abraham, chose to establish a people as his own. We are told that as soon as Abraham reached the land God had promised him, he built an altar. (Gen 12:7) The place was Shechem, from then on a sacred place for the Jewish people. The altar was built as an expression of his desire to offer worship to God.

Later Abraham was instructed to go to Mount Moriah (Gen 22:9-14) and offer sacrifice there. In this moment of testing, he was asked to sacrifice his only son. On proving his complete surrender to God, his son was spared and a sheep was sacrificed in his place. Mount Moriah is the temple mount in Jerusalem.

Throughout the Old Testament the altar was central to Jewish acts of worship. On the altar sacrifice was offered to God. In the most significant moment when Moses responded to the call of God to enter covenant, he sacrificed a bull on an altar and scattered its blood over the people.

Priests offered sacrifice on an altar to renew the covenantal relationship between God and his People.

Finally, when Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem, it became the one central place where the people came to offer sacrifice to God. This sacrifice could be one of thanksgiving or one of seeking expiation for sin. The highest religious act in Judaism was the offering of sacrifice on the altar of the temple in Jerusalem.

As sacrifice was central to the people of the Old Covenant, so it is central to the people of the New Covenant. Now it is not the sacrifice of bulls and goats, but the sacramental commemoration of the one great atoning sacrifice of Christ, as was alluded to in the reading today from the Letter to the Hebrews.

One of the earliest of the post-Apostolic writings is a document called the Didache which is dated around 70AD.

This is how it describes Christian worship:

Assemble on the Lord’s day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until he has been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice (Mt 5:23–24). For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, ‘Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations.’ (Mal 1:11, 14)

This offers clear witness to the awareness of the early Christians that the heart of the celebration of the Mass is the offering of sacrifice to God – indeed with a pure heart. And a sacrifice requires an altar.

The Fathers of the Church spoke of the altar as representing Christ. We hear this developed in our tradition which speaks of Christ as the priest, the altar and the lamb of sacrifice.

In the Catholic Catechism the Church teaches:

The altar of the New Covenant is the Lord's Cross, from which the sacraments of the Paschal mystery flow. On the altar, which is the centre of the church, the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs. (CCC 1182)

Thus the altar, around which the Christian community gathers for the celebration of the Eucharist, is the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful as the victim offered for our reconciliation.

St Ambrose commented, “For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the Body of Christ?” He says elsewhere, “The altar represents the body [of Christ] and the Body of Christ is on the altar.”

It is for this reason that the priest at the beginning of the Mass reverences the altar with a kiss. It is for this reason that the altar is stripped on Good Friday when Christ is in the tomb. At the consecration of a stone permanent altar there are five crosses representing the five wounds of Christ. The altar is, in fact, the figure and symbol of Christ himself, the sacrificial victim who offered himself up for us on Calvary.

Thus, today we bless this new altar aware of its profound significance in Catholic worship. We will pray in the prayer of blessing:

May this altar which we have built for your holy mysteries be the centre of our praise and thanksgiving.

Thus may it always be in this Church that fitting worship of God be offered and that this altar blessed today reminds us that Christ is priest, altar and lamb of sacrifice.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 19 May 2018