Jerusalem and the Altar in Our Church - part two

Here is an article I wrote today for next Sunday's Bulletin

Two weeks ago in part one in this series about our altar, I mentioned that the renowned the Belgian artist, Benoît Gilsoul, who designed the sacred art in our church, chose “Jerusalem” to be the theme of the design of the whole church, but especially that of the altar.   In the first article I wrote about Jacob’s ladder, the twelve gates of the Heavenly Jerusalem, and the dove representing the Holy Spirit who came down upon the apostles in the earthly Jerusalem, from where they spread the Gospel to the entire world.

On the front of the altar there is a very small cross, just left of center, close to the top of the altar.  It is set off from the rest of the concrete surface by gold- and black-colored tiles.  It is a very humble cross.  It actually serves two purposes:

Firstly, it is part of a set.  If you look at the two sides of the altar two other symbols, also set off from the concrete in tile: a heart on the left side and an anchor on the right.  Traditionally, these three symbols have represented the three theological virtues, Faith (the cross), Hope (the anchor) and Love (the heart).  St. Paul mentions the three of these virtues together a number of times, especially in 1 Thessalonians 1:3 and at the end of 1 Corinthians 13 where he writes: “As it is, these remain: faith, hope, and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love.”

Secondly, this small, humble cross says something about the altar itself.   One thing I like about our church is that there are very few crosses in it.  That might seem to some a strange thing for a priest to say.  Aside from this small, humble cross, we have the main cross that hangs behind and above the main altar, and the processional cross.  The only other crosses for the most part are the ones that are part of the Stations of the Cross (I’ll probably write about them during Lent).  This is a good thing.  I once lived in a large friary where in some rooms there were six or eight crosses in the design of every lighting fixture in the ceiling, and there were lots of fixtures.  There were little crosses everywhere!  I’m sure the architects thought they were doing a good thing, but by multiplying the crosses and making them the relentlessly repeated theme of the décor, they were in effect watering down the meaning of the cross.

In a very real way, one can say that every altar IS the cross.  Even though it is the words of Jesus at the Last Supper that the priest repeats at every Mass, what happens is that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross becomes present on our altar.  Jesus does not die again.  Though we are standing around our altar in 2010, in a very real way we are also standing at the foot of the cross on that first Good Friday, outside the walls of Jerusalem, at the side of Mary and the Beloved Disciple.  

Father Henry J. Eagan, OSA ends his article about the altar with these words:
“Lastly, the corners of the Altar, from the floor level to the top, are to suggest a certain feeling. The lower part is rough, involved; the upper part near the tabletop, smooth, and peaceful. The lower part suggests the conflict, the struggle of man in the world; but as he approaches the Eucharist, on the top of the Altar, he finds peace, control and order.”

I would love to know how Gilsoul and his people crafted this altar.  It seems as if they poured the concrete into a cast, probably on site, but we don’t know.  Father Jim and I have been speculating.  Does anyone in the parish remember?  As Father Eagan writes, the upper parts, especially the top surface, are remarkably smooth and do communicate a kind of peaceful, solid, stable and settled feeling.  Please feel free to approach the altar and with due reverence examine it more closely sometime.  And if you have young children, please bring them up and teach them about the symbols explained in these two articles.

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