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.

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