It is meet that in the most sacred act of worship every detail should be minutely ordained and determined, nothing being left to the discretion or pleasure of the minister. The commands of the Church are precise and must on no account be overstepped. In the same manner under the Old Dispensation almighty God Himself gave instructions to Moses as to how everything was to be made; not the Temple itself alone, but also the sacerdotal vestments and the vessels to be used in divine worship. The third book of Moses contains these divine regulations. On this account it is called Leviticus, the book of the Levites or ministers.
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass may only be offered upon an altar. Even the heathen perceived that it was meet to have a special place for sacrifice and built altars. We read that after the Deluge Noe built an altar unto the Lord and offered holocausts upon the altar (cf. Genesis 8: 20). Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did the same (cf. Genesis 12: 7; 26: 25; 31: 54). In the Temple at Jerusalem there were two altars of sacrifice: the altar of burnt-offering in the court, the altar of incense in the sanctuary.
In his epistle to the Hebrews the Apostle Paul speaks of the altar of the New Covenant: "We [Christians] have an altar whereof they have no power to eat who serve the tabernacle [the Jews]" (Hebrews 13: 10). The first altars of the early Christians were nothing more than simple wooden tables. In the church of St. John Lateran, where the head of Saint Peter is preserved, the small wooden table upon which the prince of the apostles offered the holy sacrifice in the catacombs of Rome is enclosed within the high altar. In this same church may also be seen the table of cedar-wood on which Our Lord instituted the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. In order to escape from their pagan persecutors the early Christians were compelled frequently to change the place where the holy sacrifice was offered, so that it was only when the Church enjoyed peace that permanent altars were erected. Ecclesiastical rules were then drawn up to regulate the construction of the altar, as well as concerning the celebration of divine worship in general.
The altar-table must consist of a single slab of stone with a smooth surface. In the center and at the four corners a cross, the four arms of which are of equal length must be carved on it. Relics are placed in the altar as a memorial of the custom in the first ages of the Church of raising the altars over the tombs of martyrs. If there are several altars in one church the one which stands in the choir is called the high altar, the others are called side altars. It is of ancient usage in the Latin Church to have several altars in the house of God. In the catacombs of Rome there are chapels excavated in the walls, containing two, three, or even more altars. The high altar is raised upon three steps to indicate that to the Triune God all glory and all sacrifice belong. The altar is consecrated by the bishop with special ceremonies; this consecration does not always take place in the church; more often a slab of stone is consecrated, in which relics are placed and sealed up, and which is anointed with chrism with the appointed prayers. This stone is afterwards let into the altar exactly in the center, where the chalice stands and the Host is laid at the time of Mass. These altar-stones are sometimes enclosed in small tables, which can be folded up and are called poratable altars. Missionaries make use of them when traveling on foreign missions, and army chaplains in the camp; they are also employed when an immense concourse of people renders it necessary to erect an altar in the open air.
A crucifix is to be set upon the altar, large enough to be visible from a distance, in order to remind the faithful that the same Victim is sacrificed here in a bloodless manner which was immolated to the Lord upon the cross with shedding of blood. On each side of the crucifix there must be at least one wax candle, both of which are lighted at Mass. For High Mass there must be at least four in use, and during exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at least six lighted candles, for which reason six candlesticks stand, as a rule, on the high altar. The candles must be of pure beeswax, because wax is the purest combustible produced by nature; their white color is significant of innocence. The light they shed is symbolical of the presence of Him Who speaks of Himself as "the Light of the world."
The altar must be covered with three linen cloths, one above another, to guard against desecration of the precious blood, should the celebrant have the misfortune to let any drops fall.
Three cards stand upon the altar: one, the largest, in the middle; the others, one on the left, the other on the right side. The Church requires the priest to utter every word distinctly and according to the prescribed rules, on account of which he always has the Missal before him and reads the prayers from it. On the altar-cards are inscribed certain prayers which he can not read from the Missal without inconvenience. On the one in the center are the Gloria, the Credo, the offertory prayers, the prayer before the elements are blessed, and Our Lord's words of institution, printed in large characters. The card on the epistle side contains the prayer when the water is blessed and the 25th Psalm, which is recited by the priest while he washes his fingers. The card on the gospel side contains the beginning of St. John's gospel, which is, as a rule, read at the conclusion of Holy Mass. All this shows us how careful and conscientious the priest has to be in clearly articulating every word.
[Note: The Mass of Paul VI has done away with all of this, as well as the tabernacle which is referred to in the next few paragraphs.]
Upon the high altar stands the tabernacle, which is so called because it is the antitype of the Jewish tabernacle, the dwelling-place of God among men. "Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and He will dwell with them. And they shall be His people: and God Himself with them shall be their God" (Apocalypse 21: 3). The tabernacle is the most sacred spot upon earth. It is the place where Christ miraculously dwells. It is the seat of uncreated wisdom, the glorious ark of the New Testament, the tower of strength, the abode of Him Who is the pledge of salvation and of life eternal, the tent God pitches among men, the new Heaven upon earth, whereat the angels gaze in amazement.[Note: Because the tabernacle has been so diminished in importance by the post-conciliar church, we will repeat this last paragraph in larger type:]
The tabernacle is the most sacred spot upon earth. It is the place where Christ miraculously dwells. It is the seat of uncreated wisdom, the glorious ark of the New Testament, the tower of strength, the abode of Him Who is the pledge of salvation and of life eternal, the tent God pitches among men, the new Heaven upon earth, whereat the angels gaze in amazement.
Seeing this to be so, the greatestcare ought to be expended upon the tabernacle, both as to the interior and the exterior. The exterior should be of artistic workmanship. One often sees it adorned with a design of corn and grapes, in gold or silver, to remind us of the appearances beneath which Our Lord is hidden. On each side of the tabernacle are often figures of angels adoring, above it a pelican feeding her young with her own blood, while upon the door the paschal lamb is frequently represented. The interior ought to be draped with white silk or cloth of gold, a white linen corporal being spread out below. The key of the tabernacle ought to be gilt. In cathedrals the tabernacle is generally not upon the high altar, but on a side altar, because the bishop is frequently obliged to sit while performing episcopal functions at the high altar.
Before the tabernacle the perpetual light must be kept burning. This lamp, which must be fed with a vegetable oil, is to show that on the altar before which it hangs the Light of the world is Himself present.
Next Thursday: The Sacred Vessels and Vestments