CHAPTER THE THIRD.
THE CONSECRATION OF THE ALTAR.
FOUR words are inseparably connected: Sacrifice,
Priest, Victim, Altar.
Sacrifice as we have seen is a supreme
act of worship offered to God alone by a lawful minister to show God s supreme dominion and to satisfy for sins. A priest
by his ordination has the power of consecrating the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and of absolving from sin. A priest offers
Sacrifice. The Victim is the thing offered in sacrifice.
The altar is the place where the Sacrifice
is offered. "We call all that," says Bellarmine, "the altar where the Victim is sacrificed that has been made by the hands
of the priest." (De Missa, vol. i. ch. xxvii.)
The altar is the most important object
in the church. The church is erected for the sake of the altar and not the altar for the church. Remove the altar, and the
raison d’etre of the church has gone.
The altar is for the Blessed Eucharist.
"In the Blessed Eucharist," says St. Thomas, "there is contained the cause of all sanctity, therefore
everything connected with the Blessed Eucharist is consecrated; the priests, ministers, vestments, the vessels appertaining
to the Sacrifice, are consecrated." (5. Th. vi. Dist. q. i. a. 2.)
Blessings are divided into two classes:
(benedictiones invocativa) blessings that invoke God’s favour and protection merely, and blessings that set
things aside to the service of God alone (benedictiones constitutive). The first class belongs to those things which
after being blessed are still retained for man s use and benefit, v.g., food blessed in the grace before meals. The second
refers to the sacred vestments and such-like things, and in a much higher degree to the altar consecrated by chrism and the
The altar may be of wood or stone. The
latter being more durable is preferred. The altar on which our Lord is said to have instituted the Blessed Sacrament preserved
in St. John Lateran at Rome, and the altar at which St. Peter
is thought to have said Mass still existing in the same church, are of wood.
The horizontal slab of wood or stone forming
the top of the altar is called the Table, on which the Sacred Body rests given to man as Food; while the whole altar, partly
from its shape and partly from its connection with the Sacrifice, and because it holds the relics, is described as the tomb.
We speak of a fixed and of a portable altar,
or altar stone. A fixed altar is one where the table is united to the base by the sacred unction in such a way that if separated
it thereby loses its consecration.
The altar-stone or portable altar can be
separated from its base without losing its consecration.
The portable altar, a square piece of stone
let into the altar, is to all intents the altar. It should be large enough to hold on its surface the Chalice and Host.
On the altar fixed, as on the altar-stone,
five crosses are engraved, one at each corner and one in the centre.
The altar is consecrated by a Bishop or
by a priest specially delegated by the Pope.
The most essential parts of the rite consist
in the anointing with chrism (to indicate according to Gavantus the richness of grace) and the placing of relics in the sepulchre
or aperture made in the altar-stone and afterwards filled up. (Catholic Dictionary, p. 23.)
The Bishop makes five crosses on the altar-stone
with his thumb, which he has dipped in a preparation of water, ashes, salt, and wine specially blessed.
An essential part of the consecration is
depositing the relics of the martyrs in the altar : per merita sanctorum tiiorum quorum veliquia hie sunt "by the
merits of Thy saints whose relics are here" relics properly so called, that is, portions of the bodies of martyrs, not merely
the clothes they wore, or things they possessed, must be buried in the altar. Relics of martyrs, not confessors, are selected
because there is a close connection between the martyr who dies for the faith and the Sacrifice of Calvary,
where Christ, the King of Martyrs, shed His Blood for the Gospel which He taught, the faithful whom He redeemed, and the Church
which He founded.
During the Anglo-Saxon times, instead
of the relics of martyrs, the Sacred Host was buried and enclosed in the sepulchre of the altar. The reason of this practice
was perhaps the great difficulty of communicating with Rome
in those days and in obtaining portions of the saint’s bodies. (See Father Bridget’s History of the Blessed Eucharist in Great Britain.)