Reflection on altar dedication connects with the Holy Week and Easter celebration
It is not often that I have the opportunity to dedicate a new church or chapel. I was able to do just that recently at our St. John Paul II Newman Center. Several hundred students and guests from the community filled the center’s oratory (or chapel) for a beautiful liturgy. Appropriately, it was April 2, the 12th anniversary of the death of St. John Paul II. This was the day, as Pope Benedict XVI said, that Pope John Paul had "returned to the Father’s house."
We opened this new Newman Center to serve the University of Nebraska at Omaha late last summer. The facility contains a residence hall to accommodate 164 students, as well as spacious areas where all UNO students are welcome to gather, study and enjoy a vibrant Catholic community of faith and learning.
Father Joseph Taphorn directs the center, and he resides there along with Father Andrew Roza, our vocation director. They provide excellent spiritual guidance and pastoral care for the students, assisted by FOCUS missionaries and other lay staff.
Construction of the chapel dedicated to St. John Paul II has taken a little longer, but it has been worth the wait. It is beautifully constructed of limestone, wood and glass. A large image of the risen Christ in stained glass is a central feature above the altar. The walls offer a unique presentation of teachings from St. John Paul’s encyclicals as designs in the stained glass. At night, light shines out through the windows like a lantern, inviting students in to meet the Lord. From the inside, one looks out into the world as if through the lens of the saint’s teaching.
The most important element of any Catholic church or chapel is the altar. The bishop follows a special ritual to dedicate the altar, and I find it a moving experience whenever I am able to perform it.
I pour sacred chrism on the flat surface of the altar in the form of five crosses, one in the center and one at each corner. The whole surface is then anointed with the chrism, consecrating the altar and setting it apart for the eucharistic sacrifice.
Incense is then burned in a brazier placed on the altar. Its sweet fragrance fills the church, and the smoke rises to remind us of the prayers and sacrifices of the church to be offered at that altar, in union with the perfect sacrifice of Jesus.
The particular appearance of the altar may vary from one parish church to another. But the significance of the altar is always the same. I reflected on that significance in preparing for the consecration of the altar at the Newman Center. I’ll share part of the fruit of that reflection, since it relates to the coming celebration of the triduum and Easter.
The new altar in the St. John Paul II oratory is made of several large pieces of stone. Through the eyes of faith, we can see the stony hill of Calvary. Jesus climbed that hill, humiliated and carrying the cross. He freely gave his life on the altar of the cross, mounted on those stones. Jesus has tasted death once, and he does not die again. But his sacrifice to the Father, in freedom, for all of us dead in sin, is made present on the mound of stone that we have built into the altar.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the truth that Jesus is not dead now; he is risen. Through the eyes of faith, we also see the stones of the altar as the empty tomb, from which Jesus has risen, glorious and triumphant.
Every time the eucharistic sacrifice is offered on the altar, heaven and earth meet. The Son of God comes into our lives as our companion and friend, just as he came to his first disciples. He is with us in our joys and sorrows, our hope and doubt, our consolation and our pain. He takes all of that upon himself.
At the altar, the risen Jesus invites us to participate in the eternal act of worship that he offers at the right hand of the Father. Just as he has been freed from the bonds of death and the darkness of the tomb, we, too, are made free. We are freed from the bonds of eternal death, and we are given heavenly food from the altar, the Body and Blood of the Lord, a foretaste of the eternal banquet.
Sustained by the spiritual food received from the altar, we go out to fulfill the Lord’s commission to evangelize the world. We are not called to spend our lives at the altar, as essential as the Mass is to our life in the risen Christ. We have been set free to give public witness to the truth of the resurrection. We are sent out from the altar at the end of every Mass to have an influence, in Jesus’ name, on our families and communities.
I encourage you to participate at your parish in the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week and Easter. The Lord invites us to come up to Jerusalem, to be with him at Calvary and at the empty tomb. We will experience there the meeting of heaven and earth. It is not that earth has become heavenly because of human striving. Rather, God bends down to meet us in our slavery to sin and death. By the cross and resurrection of Jesus we are given freedom and raised up for eternal life.