The Altar

The Holy Sacrifice as an Offering in Honor of the Saints.

    The Mass is also offered up in honor of the Saints, as is shown in the Sanctoral Cycle. This implies an open recognition of the fact that it is to the Holy Eucharist as a Sacrifice and as a Sacrament that the Saints owe the graces granted to them in such abundance by God; indeed, we honor the Saints by thus glorifying the work of the Almighty in them. It is also an act of homage paid to them when we unite them with our Lord in remembrance at the Altar, as is done on the anniversary of their death and from day to day in the Canon of the Mass. As members of the mystical body of Christ it is only right that they should be associated with the sacrifice of their Head, as by their sufferings and frequently by their death they have mingled their blood together with that of the Divine Victim. Here we find the explanation of the practice of the Church of letting in relics of Saints, and especially of Martyrs, in the altar-stone at the very spot where the Sacred Host is to be placed. "It is the whole redeemed city," says St. Augustine "that is to say the congregation and company of the Saints, that is the universal sacrifice, and that is offered to, God by the High Priest Who offered up Himself for us in His passion."

The Mass   

     We can pay no greater honor to the Saints than by offering to God in their name the Blood of Jesus as an act of adoration of the Supreme Being and by way of thanksgiving to Him, through Christ, for the many blessings He poured upon them. The Saints, eager as they are to glorify the Most Holy Trinity, are grateful to us for doing so to their intention, as it adds to their happiness. The efficacy of their past merits and present prayers is greatly increased when offered to God in close association with the merits and prayers of Jesus, the Universal Mediator. And this is what takes place especially on their feast days, when Mass is celebrated in their honor. "Inasmuch as so many are pleading for us", the Collect for the Feast of All Saints asks God "to confer upon us, through Jesus Christ, the fullness of His mercy for which we long." Also God is more ready to accept the offering of the Blood of Jesus when made, so to speak, through the intermediacy of His Saints.
    It's interesting to see how the practice of the veneration of relics has slowly been phased out. In The Daily Missal with Vespers for Sunday & Feasts by Dom Gaspar Lefebre, O.S.B., of the Abbey of St. Andre (1934), you'll find on November 5th the Mass for the Feast of the Holy Relics. Here are some excerpts from the introduction and the Mass.
    After having solemnized on All Saint's Day the feast of the holy souls who have entered heaven, the Church honors on this day the holy relics of their bodies which will remain on earth until the glorious resurrection, a pledge of which we venerate in their ashes. Just as a supernatural virtue issued from the sacred Humanity of Jesus and healed those who approached Him (Gospel) so too the saints who enjoy God in heaven (Gradual, Communion) may by their relics, (bones) (Introit), ashes, clothes, or other objects used by them "work wonders on earth", says the Collect,"exorcise devils, heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, cleanse lepers, drive away temptations and bestow on all the excellent gifts which come from the Father of light."
COLLECT. - Do Thou, O Lord, increase our faith in the Resurrection, Thou that workest wonders in the relics of Thy saints: and make us partakers of that immortal glory, a pledge of which we venerate in their ashes. Through our Lord.
SECRET. - We implore Thy clemency, O Lord, that by the interceding merits of Thy saints whose relics we venerate, this sacrifice which we offer may be an expiation of our sins. Through our Lord.
POSTCOMMUNION. - Multiply upon us Thy mercy, we beseech Thee, O Lord, through the Sacraments which we have received: that even as with a pious devotion we rejoice in the solemnity of the saints whose relics we venerate, so also by Thy bountiful goodness we may enjoy their everlasting fellowship. Through our Lord. In The Daily Missal of the Mystical Body printed in 1960 there is no reference made to the Feast of the Holy Relics on Nov. 5th, but there is a prayer for The Consecration of an Altar that mentions relics.
PRAYER. - O God, you have built an eternal dwelling place for yourself in the army of your saints. May this mansion grow stronger in heaven, so that we may always be aided by the merits of those blessed whose relics we here enshrine in love and reverence. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and rules with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. In one vision that Ven. Anne Catherine Emmerich had, she noticed the relics from the altars of rebuilt churches where mixed and scattered. She said, "the great blessings diffused around by relics I saw withdrawn when they are treated with neglect." Sister Anne believed that God willed that these relics should be scattered that they might fall under the supernaturally enlightened eyes of her who knows so well their value.

The Altar    

In Canon VII of the Council of Nicea II, in 787 A.D., they addressed the fact that, "churches consecrated without any deposit of the relics of the Saints, the defect should be made good."
    "We decree therefore that relics shall be placed with the accustomed service in as many of the sacred temples as have been consecrated without the relics of the Martyrs. And if any bishop from this time forward is found consecrating a temple without holy relics, he shall be deposed, as a transgressor of the ecclesiastical traditions."
    Once again, a very powerful dogmatic teaching. No Christian is at liberty to refuse assent to any dogma which the Church proposes. To do so involves nothing less than shipwreck of faith, and no Catholic can accept the Protestant distinction between "fundamental and non-fundamental articles of faith." It is a matter of fundamental importance to accept the whole of the Church's teaching. True, a Catholic is not bound to know explicitly and in detail all the definitions of the Church - but, if he knowingly and wilfully contradicts or doubts the truth of any one among them, he ceases to be a Catholic.
    Prior to the 5th century altars where for the most part portable altars, St. Gregory the Great PP. D., (540-604) made it possible to celebrate Mass over the body of St. Peter. St. Gregory of Tours (540-594) recorded a passage of deacon Agiulf regarding the practices of devotion he witnessed at the tomb of St. Peter.
    "St. Peter . . . is buried in the temple formerly called Vaticanum, which has four lines of columns, wonderful to see, ninety-six in number. It also has four in altar, making one hundred in all, not counting those which carry the canopy over the tomb. The tomb is placed sub altar and is set carefully apart. But who so wishes to pray, for him the doors (cancelli) that give access to the place are unbolted, and he enters the precinct over the tomb, and a small window (fenestella) is opened, and placing his head within he asks for whatever he requires; nor is there any delay in granting his request, provided that his prayer is just. And if he wishes to carry away a holy token, a piece of cloth weighed in a scale is hung within; and then, watching and fasting, he makes urgent prayer that the Apostle's virtue further his request. And if his faith prevail, when the cloth is raised from the tomb, wonderful to tell, it is so imbued with holy virtue that it weighs far more than it did before; and then he knows that he has received, along with this sign of grace, a favorable answer to his prayer . . ."
    In St. Peter's, as early as the fifth century the altar and the relic began an ever closer relationship within the frame work of basilica. Prior to that the object of veneration was contained in a portable reliquary, it was placed beneath the altar; and, as we can witness form St. Peter's Basilica, where the holy relic was itself a fixture, it was the altar that was moved. In the 5th and 6th centuries we can find an ever-increasing emphasis on the relationship between altar and relic, an association which had a profound effect on the development of western European architecture. With the construction of the altar of the Confessio we have the first clear within St.Peter's of the multiplication of secondary altars that accompanied the increasing fragmentation and dispersal of holy relics throughout the Christian world. The ancient tradition of keeping the relics of martyrs and other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved according to the norms given in the liturgical books.
    "This paragraph is notably different from its corresponding paragraph in the 1917 Code. The former legislation spoke of a small space (sepulchre) cut into the altar or altar stone which contained the (usually very small) relics of saints (CIC 1198, 4). The General Instruction of 1970 speaks of maintaining the practice of enclosing in the altar or of placing under the altar the relics of saints." In the rite of Dedication there is no longer any mention of enclosing the relics in the altar. The present Code repeats the legislation found in the rite of Dedication and states that the relics are to be placed under the fixed altar. Furthermore, the rite states that "the relics intended for deposition should be of such a size that they can be recognized as parts of human bodies. Hence excessively small relics of one or more saints must not be deposited." The entire dignity of an altar consists in this: the altar is the table of the Lord. It is not then, the bodies of the martyrs that render the altar glorious; it is the altar that renders the burial place of the martyrs glorious. However, as a mark of respect for the bodies of the martyrs and other saints, and as a sign that the sacrifice of the members has its source in the sacrifice of the Head, it is fitting that altars should be constructed over their tombs, or their relics placed beneath altars, so that "the triumphant victims may occupy the place where Christ is victim: He, however, who suffered for all, upon the altar; they, who have been redeemed by his sufferings, beneath the altar." This arrangement would seem to recall in a certain manner the spiritual vision of the apostle John in the Book of Revelation.1 "I saw underneath the altar the souls of all the people who had been killed on account of the word of God, for witnessing to it." Although all the saints are rightly called Christ's witnesses, the witness of blood has a special significance, which is given complete and perfect expression by depositing only martyrs' relics beneath the altar."
    A very important symbolic altar furnishing of the Byzantine Rite, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is the antimension, a rectangular piece of linen or silk about 18" square. It has relics of the saints sewn into it and it is consecrated by a Byzantine rite Bishop during a long ceremony during which he anoints the relics and the antimension with the holy oil called Sacred Chrism (Holy Myron). The antimension was developed during the Iconoclastic and Moslem persecutions of the VII and IX centuries in the East as an easily-carried and hidden portable altar to replace the unwieldy and breakable pieces of stone or wood used as portable altars up until that time. The word antimension is derived from a combination of the Greek prefix anti, meaning           "instead of " and the Latin word mensa, taken over into the Greek and signifying "table", especially "altar table". Antimension, therefore means "something used instead of the (fixed) altar".
This is an extraction from the ICHRusa handbook, "Relics - The Forgotten Sacramental".