Immaculate Conception Church in Cranston is a contemporary brick and mortar building with very minimal adornment. A couple of reverent banners and framed artwork flank the sanctuary proper. The monochrome Stations of the Cross line the rear wall of the church. The tabernacle, although central to the sanctuary, does not overwhelm. The presidential chair of darkened wood and fabric is positioned to the sanctuary’s right and the pulpit occupies the opposite flank. A large wooden crucifix hangs fittingly over the midpoint of the sanctuary.
As a result, the entire fabric of Immaculate Conception Church happily and astutely highlights the hefty stone altar as the liturgical focal point and sacramental center of parish life. The Catholic altar is certainly the principal source from which parish graces flow and the summit toward which all parish activities should lead. The altar is truly the heart of parish life.
In a recent article in the liturgical publication “Adoremus,” author Denis R. McNamara suggests that the Catholic parish altar symbolizes Christ in the past, the present and the future. In the Old Testament an altar marked a meeting place between God and man. Abraham built an altar to commemorate God’s intervention to save the life of Isaac. Jacob erected an altar to mark the spot where he wrestled with God throughout a night: “This is the House of God and Gate of Heaven.” The altar in Jerusalem’s Temple was truly believed to be the enduring dwelling place of God with man. So these ancient meeting places of God with man anticipated the supreme meeting place of God and man in the flesh and blood person of Jesus Christ.
In Christ, of course, symbol became reality when the Son of God became incarnate and truly dwelt among God’s people on earth. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” So the Catholic altar is certainly a visible reminder of the Incarnation, God’s nearness to his people through his incarnate Son and continuing through the sacraments of his Son’s Church. In the fifth preface for Easter we read “As He gave Himself into Your hands for our salvation, He showed Himself to be the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of sacrifice.” So the Catholic altar prominently announces the enduring salvific work of Jesus Christ in the present age.
But the Catholic altar also envisions the future. The parish altar anticipates the gathering of the people of God around the eternal, glorious banquet table in heaven on which will be celebrated the fullness of communion between God and man. The Second Vatican Council Decree on the Liturgy makes it clear that “in the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that at the celebration of Mass “we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life.” The Catholic altar, appropriately adorned with a white cloth as for a feast, prefigures the heavenly banquet table, the eternal heavenly festivity which will celebrate the full reunification of God and his creation.
St. Thomas Aquinas characteristically summarizes the past, present and future aspects of the celebration of Mass when he tersely writes: “O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of His Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
The Catholic altar as an anticipation of the heavenly banquet, as a pledge of future glory, was powerfully and effectively brought home to me at the recent rite of Christian burial for Father Ronald Brassard (RIP) celebrated in the afore mentioned Immaculate Conception Church. The whole people of God — bishops, priests, deacons, religious, alumni and laity — gathered plentifully, sang hymns heartily, heard Scripture effectively, listened to the homily thoughtfully, witnessed the gifts prepared attentively, followed the Eucharistic prayer responsively, received Communion reverently, and left church joyfully. This rite of Christian burial truly was an anticipation of the future glory that true believers desire for their believed deceased.
“It is indeed a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins,” the Book of Maccabees wisely counsels the reader. But pious concern for the past must not obscure hopeful thoughts of the future. The commemoration of All Souls Day, November 2, has often had morose overtones over the centuries. Black vestments, Judgment Day references, even sometimes a catafalque in the aisle, did little to reflect the Catholic belief in the Mass as an anticipation of heavenly glory. Hope, not grief, should be the dominant sentiment at every Mass.
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