Today we celebrate one of the richest, almost luscious, of the Church’s liturgies, that of the dedication of an altar.
At the beginning of the Mass the altar was sprinkled with holy water. In a moment it will be dedicated by a Prayer which refers all the way back to the first altar mentioned in the Bible, that raised by Noah after the Flood. It will be anointed with chrism, have incense set burning on it. It will be dressed and then lit. It’s as if the altar is almost a person. Indeed that is the key. It’s as if it’s baptised and confirmed, given a white garment and a candle to hold. Finally it becomes the place of the Eucharist. This is what happens to us in the process of Christian initiation. There’s a symbiosis between the altar and ourselves. Even more between the altar and Christ. It represents him. After the consecrated elements which are the very Body and Blood of the Lord, there is no stronger representation of Christ in a church than the altar.
There’s one detail, though, I’d like to dwell on. It’s Noah. In the Prayer of Dedication we’ll hear the words: ‘Noah, the second father of the human race, once the waters fell and the mountains peaked again, built an altar in your name. You, Lord, were appeased by his fragrant offering and your rainbow bore witness to a covenant re-founded in love.’
This is drawn from chapters 8 and 9 of Genesis. The almost all-destroying flood has subsided. And the very first thing Noah does when he and his family and the animals come out of the ark is build an altar for the Lord and offer some animals and birds as a sacrifice on it. Noah wants to reconsecrate the world to God. And the Lord – this is expressed very humanly – smells the appeasing fragrance, and says ‘Never again will I curse the earth because of man, because his heart contrives evil from his infancy.’ Our altar tonight is one of the latest in the world, and in biblical history Noah’s is the first. And the context of the first throws light on the last and latest.
Noah’s altar follows on from the Flood, the Great Deluge – the archetypal catastrophe. Behind the Flood, in the Bible’s mind, is our deep-rooted penchant for evil. Behind it is God’s exasperation with humanity. The Flood was a return to the chaos that had been overcome in the beginning. It was a protest of nature at the wickedness of man. It was a sign of God’s justice, his will to drown the accumulating human sin and disorder. And of his mercy, his desire to begin again, with a second Adam: righteous Noah. And Noah’s altar and sacrifice is the curtain-raiser of this new beginning, this second chance for humanity. It’s a sign of hope.
100 years ago this month the 1st World War began. It released a flood. Some historians of the 20th c, rather than speaking of two world wars, have spoken of one seventy-five year war, beginning in 1914 and ending with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. And again since then, and not least now, the earth seems to open and dark destructive waters well up and flood the earth.
And where is the altar from which an appeasing fragrance will rise, that will draw a line under destruction, and be the cornerstone of a better future? Christ of course is all that, and more. He’s the new Noah, the ‘second father of the human race’ after the first one, Adam, failed and fell. He’s the origin of a new humanity born of the Spirit. He rode the flood of human sin on the Cross and rose as the beginning of a new world of righteousness. He’s the priest, the sacrifice and the altar. He’s the appeasing fragrance which lifts the curse and guarantees the victory of life over death. He is the great sign that God’s mercy overpowers his justice, as it were, that evil has a limit, and that God’s final purpose for us is positive and good.
And every Christian altar is a sign of him, of all he is and does. It’s him, his table, his Cross, his empty tomb, his ascended self. It’s where the Eucharist is celebrated, the sacrifice of the ultimate pleasing fragrance. Every detail almost conspires in this direction. An altar like ours is solid, fixed, made of stone. Why? Because the Cross is a fixed point in a turning world and the risen Christ is always living to intercede for us, firm in the heavens. The altar is a focus and centre, it catches our eye, unites our attention. So, when Christ is lifted up he draws everything to himself, reconciles us to God and one another. ‘Make it source of unity and friendship, says the Prayer, where your people may gather as one to share your spirit of mutual love.’ We approach the altar for a blessing or Holy Communion or to be confirmed. ‘Make it a place of communion and peace’, we’ll pray, ‘so that those who share the body and blood of your Son may be filled with His Spirit and grow in your life of love.’ When we look at it and beyond it to the Tabernacle, we can lift up our hearts in prayer like Solomon in the Temple: ‘Hear the entreaty of your servant and of Israel your people as they pray in this place. From heaven where your dwelling is, hear; and as you hear, forgive.’
How the world needs places like this! How the world needs altars! How many floods there are, and what a constant need – at micro and macro levels – for new beginnings, for picking up the pieces and starting again! From the altar comes the fresh strength we need. I remember a scene from the biography of Bl. Leonid Fedorov. He was a Catholic bishop of the Russian rite at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution (another flood). Everything was against him and his little flock. And he would go to his chapel and lean his head against the altar and pray there. How good that this parish has seen its way to have this altar built!
All this brings us back to ourselves. ‘Set yourselves close to him’, the living stone, the living altar, Jesus Christ. We’re the living stones making a spiritual house, baptised, confirmed, enlightened by faith, anointed by the Spirit, each of us and all of us a place of thanksgiving and intercession, a Eucharistic community, and please God an appeasing fragrance and light in the world. May this altar help this to happen! May our whole lives be worship in spirit and truth! May they ride out every flood!
Reading through the rubrics, I was struck by one. The people were to be prepared for this liturgy beforehand, it said, and so ‘be imbued with a due and proper love of the altar’.
Yes, may this parish really reverence and cherish and love this altar! May all this sacramental symbolism enter our hearts and imaginations! And may the saints whose relics are here pray for us!
St Mary’s Inverness, 29 August 2014