MASS - 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
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
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.
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)
This is an extraction from the ICHRusa handbook, "Relics
- The Forgotten Sacramental".