Continuing last week’s discussion of the tabernacle veil, its significance, and its expected use within the Church, there is a related issue: that of the covering of the altar. For centuries, in most (but not all) churches, the tabernacle and altar were not only joined in their theological significance but also physically.
Up until the 13th century, the Blessed Sacrament was commonly reserved on the altar itself. The altar would be beneath a canopy supported by four columns, and a curtain was raised between the columns in order to completely obscure from view the altar and the Blessed Sacrament. In fact, the action of the Mass was carried out largely behind this curtain with the Faithful unable to see or hear anything (more on this at a later date). The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) mandated that the Eucharist and Sacred Chrism (interesting that they address both in the same statement!) should be kept under lock “so that no audacious hand can reach them to do anything horrible or impious” (no. 20). At that point, the tabernacle was kept either on the altar, as has been the maintained tradition of the Churches of the East, or in close proximity to it. Eventually, many altars were joined to the wall in which the tabernacle was placed, giving us the common, traditional arrangement that was rather ubiquitous until the call of the Second Vatican Council that the altar should be free-standing so that one might be able to walk all around it.
Despite their present separation, the tabernacle and altar are linked most especially by their centrality to the mystery of the True Presence of Christ in the Church. The former houses the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharistic species which is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The latter is Christ Himself in the Eucharistic Sacrifice (remember, in the Mass, Christ is priest, victim, and altar all at the same time!). For this reason, it has been the custom of adorning the altar in a similar manner to that of the tabernacle (although tabernacles were a later innovation, which actually suggests tabernacles being adorned in the manner of the altar).
It is prescribed that an altar be covered by a frontal or antependium, a cloth that covers at least the front side of the altar, as well as at least a single white cloth covering the mensa, or tabletop of the altar (three cloths are traditionally used). The white cloths covering the top of the altar, the place of the Sacrifice of the Mass, were usually made of linen and called to mind the linen burial shroud in which the body of Our Lord was wrapped after his crucifixion and death. The antependium, on the other hand, constituted a covering of honor for the “body” of the altar, and was very rich in its ornamentation to highlight the royalty and sovereignty of Christ. These “robes of majesty,” as Bishop J. F. Van der Stappen calls them in his work Sacra Liturgia, represent Christ as Priest and King, and are only stripped away on Holy Thursday. “His faithful, His costly garments, His disciples, are all stripped from Him; and His desolation is made all the more evident by this complete annihilation of colour.” Moreover, the fully dressed altar draws further focus to its architectural significance as the focal point of the church, the epicenter of the great Mystery of our Faith, the Eucharistic Sacrifice itself.
Finally, and on a more practical note, the antependium of the altar, with its changing of color throughout the seasons of the Liturgical Year serves as a visual representation of the liturgical cycle, a tangible and prominent reminder to the Faithful of how the celebrations of various Masses pertain to the person of Christ Himself as our King and Savior.
There seems to be prevalent habit these days of lessening the sensory effect of the liturgy in the life of the Church, which I decry as lamentable and entirely preventable. The call of the Second Vatican Council to rediscover the “noble simplicity” of the Liturgy subordinates simplicity to nobility, wherein we are lifted out of the mundane into the unspeakable Beauty that is the House of God itself. Blessed Idelfonso Cardinal Schuster, Archbishop of Milan in the early 20th Century, wrote the following: “It is well known that all the present texts of the Missal and of the Breviary have beautiful melodies attached to them. As no one, for instance, would desire to judge of an opera simply by reading the libretto of the author, but would wish also to hear the music and see the full effect of the mise en scène, so, in order thoroughly to appreciate the sense of beauty and inspiration, the powerful influence produced by the sacred liturgy on the Christian people, it is necessary to see it performed in the full splendour of its architectural setting, of the clergy in their vestments, of the music, the singing and the ritual, and not to judge it merely from a curtailed and simplified presentment.”
Beauty. Nobility. Splendor. The things of Heaven, prefigured on earth for our sake. That’s certainly something to aspire to.
Originally published in The Lewis County Catholic Times on 29 January 2017.