It is providential that on this eve of our National holiday of Thanksgiving, the Altar destined for use in Christ Cathedral arrived yesterday from Italy. This is the first image of the unpacked Altar Table or ‘mensa’. It is fitting that the Altar was gifted to the Cathedral by the priests of the Diocese of Orange. The following article is a more comprehensive reflection on this important symbol in our new Cathedral Church.
The Holy Table
One of the most important and cherished National holidays in our country is that of Thanksgiving. Gathering around a common table, families share the meal that has become synonymous with this holiday –the revered turkey and all the fixings! As much as we may lament the vanishing ‘family meal’around a ‘common table,’we get a taste for this important family ritual yearly at the Thanksgiving celebration.
As Catholic Christians, we too have our ‘common table’in the ‘House of the Church.’ That Holy Table is the focus of everything we are and do when we gather for liturgical prayer. For, that table is, of course, the Holy Altar of Sacrifice upon which the Eucharist is celebrated. In its 2000 document, Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship, the Bishops of our country state this about the Altar of Sacrifice:
The altar is "the center of thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes" and the point around which the other rites are in some manner arrayed. Since the Church teaches that "the altar is Christ,” its composition should reflect the nobility, beauty, strength, and simplicity of the One it represents. In new churches there is to be only one altar so that it "signifies to the assembly of the faithful one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church."
It is for this reason that at the very beginning of our creative re-imagining and re-purposing of the former Crystal Cathedral for its transformation into Christ Cathedral, it was the positioning of the Altar of Eucharistic Sacrifice that was of paramount importance. Critical to its design was both its proportions that would bespeak its importance as the primary liturgical symbol in the Cathedral Church and its visual accessibility to the entire worshipping assembly of nearly 2000 people.
Choosing fine marble for the construction of both the mensa or Altar top, as well as its monumental pedestal supports and in amble proportion, eight-foot square, it will powerfully convey Christ, as our ‘sure foundation.’ In accord with ancient tradition, the mensawill bear five crosses that will be incised into the marble. These crosses represent the five wounds of Christ on the cross.
In ancient times, the Holy Sacrifice was often celebrated over the tombs of women and men who gave their lives for Christ, the martyrs. It is for this reason that Built of Living Stones, states:
In the Church's history and tradition, the altar was often placed over the tombs of the saints or the relics of saints were deposited beneath the altar. The presence of relics of saints in the altar provides a witness to the Church's belief that the Eucharist celebrated on the altar is the source of the grace that won sanctity for the saints. The custom of placing small relics of martyrs or other saints in an altar stone and setting this in the mensa has changed since the Second Vatican Council. Relics of martyrs or other saints may be placed beneath the altar, as long as the relics are of a size sufficient for them to be recognizable as parts of a human body and that they are of undoubted authenticity. Relics are no longer placed on the altar or set into the mensa in an altar stone.
In light of this changed practice, beneath the Altar in Christ Cathedral, a precious reliquary has been designed of noble proportions, containing the holy relics of martyrs and saints of particular importance to our local Church of Orange. It is our hope that relics of the venerable Vietnamese, Korean and Mexican Martyrs will be enshrined in the reliquary as a testimony to the living Christ who is the source of all holiness and grace.