The Altar Stone and Relic

The altar is a symbol of Christ’s Sacramental presence. It is the Table of the Lord where we join with Christ in his heavenly feast. Catholic altars always contain a relic of a saint, usually a martyr. This reminds us of the early Christian era when Mass was often celebrated in the catacombs on the sarcophagus of a saint. Once Christianity was made legal by Emperor Constantine, it became the custom in the Roman Church to build Churches so that the altars stood directly over the tomb of a martyr. For example: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is built over the tomb of St. Peter.

The respect or veneration of relics is a very ancient practice. It was practiced in ancient Judaism, as evidenced by the care given to Joseph’s bones when the Israelites left Egypt. But the practice is more universal and ancient than that.

Respect for relics, sometimes called the “religion of remembrance,” was common among almost all peoples. In many instances, some attempt was made to render the departed present by means of an object in which it was believed something of the deceased remained. Among certain ancient peoples, this developed into the custom of erecting elaborate funereal monuments such as the pyramids and using them for commemorative gatherings, frequently with some religious significance.

The theological basis for this practice is the belief that our bodies are sacred. God created our bodies and called them “good.” In the incarnation, God walked among us in a human body. As Christians, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.

To respect the relic of a saint is to venerate what God has done in the world through his Church and particularly through the life of that individual.

In Persona Christi

From the very beginning of the Mass to the end, the priest acts in persona Christi. By this, it is understood that the priest is not acting as his own person, but as the person of Christ. It is Christ, not the priest, who affects the Sacrament. The priest is empowered by the Church through apostolic succession to celebrate the Mass, but it is Christ who makes the miracle.

“Christ is always present in his Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass not only in the person of his minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially in the Eucharistic species [of bread and wine]. By his power he is present in the Sacraments so that when anybody baptizes, it is really Christ himself who baptizes. He is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church. Lastly, he is present when the Church prays and sings, for he has promised ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.”

“Christ, indeed, always associates the Church with himself in this great work in which God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. the Church is his beloved Bride who calls to her Lord and through him offers worship to the eternal Father.” . . . which participates in the liturgy of heaven

“In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, Minister of the sanctuary and of the true Tabernacle. With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, until he, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with him in glory.” CCC; ⁋ 1088-1090

How are a priest and deacon different?

Priests and deacons are both ordained ministers of the Gospel. However, their service to the Church is quite different.

The deacon’s ministry originated in the Acts of the Apostles to serve the Church in many practical ways.

The Twelve called together the entire community of disciples and said, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, brethren, we direct you to select from among you seven men of good reputation, men filled with the Spirit and with wisdom, to whom we may assign this task. We will then be able to devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

The entire community found this proposal to be acceptable, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch who was a convert to Judaism. They then presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid hands on them. Acts 6:2-6 NCB

A deacon, therefore, is a servant of the Church. Like the priest, he is an ordained clergy. However, his functions are limited and somewhat analogous to those of a Protestant minister. He:

  • Preaches
  • Baptizes
  • Marries
  • Buries
  • Ministers to the sick
  • Offers service to the poor

A priest is ordained to serve in persona Christi. He performs all the ministries of a deacon. But additionally, he celebrates the Eucharist and pronounces absolution.

What Holds the Mass Together

From the first days of the Church following the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, believers gathered for Mass daily. “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” Acts 2:42 (NAB)

This fourfold pattern of worship continues to the present day. In each Mass, believers gather to listen to the writings of the Apostles in the gospels and their epistles. We come together in fellowship: greeting one another, discovering needs for assistance and prayer, and sharing our lives with one another. We celebrate the breaking of the bread, that is, the Eucharistic Feast. And, we pray for one another.

Over the last 2,000 years, the celebration has become more organized. We call this organization of worship liturgy. However, liturgy is not something cold and detached. Liturgy is an act of worship. The Greek word, liturgia, is translated “the prayers” in the verse quoted above.

In ancient Greece, ‘liturgy’ described a voluntary service to the state. In the Church, it has come to mean our service of worship to God. In the Mass, we gather for the Liturgy of the Word (reading of and reflection on Scripture) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ proclaimed in his Last Supper, experienced in his Passion and made present in each Mass.) Above all, the Eucharist is a celebration of thanksgiving, which is what the word ‘eucharist’ means. It is thanksgiving for the saving act of Christ by which we are redeemed from eternal death and made friends of God.

From the beginning, Christians have celebrated the Eucharist and in a form whose substance has not changed despite the great diversity of times and liturgies. It is because we know ourselves to be bound by the command the Lord gave on the eve of his Passion, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We carry out the Lord’s command by celebrating the memorial of his Sacrifice. In so doing, we offer to the Father what he has himself given us: the gifts of his creation, bread and wine. By the power of the Holy Spirit and by the words of Christ, these gifts become the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus, Christ is truly and mysteriously made Present.

The Eucharist is a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Father, a blessing by which the Church expresses her gratitude to God for all his benefits, for all that he has accomplished through creation, redemption, and sanctification. Eucharist means first of all “thanksgiving.” CCC ⁋ 1356-1357, 1360