Here is an article I wrote today for next Sunday's Bulletin
Until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, there was only one altar in all of Judaism. That was in the Temple in Jerusalem. Synagogues do not have altars. Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), all new Catholic churches have only one altar. Most churches built before that usually have one main altar and two or even more smaller altars. Our church was one of the first to be built after the council, and it has a beautiful altar! It is the focal point of our whole church. The renowned Belgian artist, Benoît Gilsoul (1914-2000), designed most of the religious art inside our church including the altar.
Many of you probably have seen the booklet written by Fr. Henry Eagan, OSA describing the art in our church. He tells us that Gilsoul chose “Jerusalem” to be the theme of the altar. This is extremely appropriate. For us Catholics, the altar is both altar of sacrifice, inextricably bound to the cross of Jesus Christ, as well of banquet table. On our altars the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross (just outside of Jerusalem) becomes present in our midst. Let’s look at some of the symbolism.
First, left of center we have Jacob’s ladder. Jacob dreamed of this ladder, with angels ascending and descending to and from Heaven, at a place called Bethel (Gen. 28:12). St. Jerome places Bethel (“House of God”) about 12 miles north of Jerusalem, but some Jewish commentaries place it at Mount Moriah, the site where Jerusalem and the Temple were later to be built. Jacob’s dream can be interpreted to mean that this is to be a place where God and humankind commune with each other. In the Gospel of John 1:51 there is clear reference to Jacob's dream pointing to Jesus who is referred to with his title of Son of Man: "Amen amen, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." Indeed the altar is the place where we commune with God in and through Jesus, our Lord.
Then, right of center we see the dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descended upon the disciples and Mary in the Upper Room, in Jerusalem, on Pentecost. The seven round seeds seen close to the head of the dove express the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples went out from Jerusalem to witness to Jesus and to the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Why are there holes in our altar? Those are not holes. They are gates! The Book of Revelation chapter 21 describes the New Jerusalem that will come in the Messianic Age (when Jesus comes again) as being surrounded by walls made of precious stone. The walls have 12 gates. Our altar has 12 gates. There are 6 on the front (the smallest is easy to miss – it’s at the base of the wing of the dove) and 3 on each side panel.
Please take a closer look at the altar to see these symbols. I’ll be writing more about the altar in a short while.
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