Simple Catholic Snapshots
This is the final of a three-part series, where SimpleCatholicTruth takes you on a short tour of a typical Catholic Church. In the first post that you can find HERE, we opened the doors, entered the church and looked forward across the nave and to the sanctuary. In part two (find HERE) we looked around the side and back walls to see the Ambry, Confessional and Stations of the Cross. Today we return to the Sanctuary, the center of the house of God and of our Sacramental liturgy.
- The Altar – The place of Christ’s eternal Sacrifice and New Covenant
- Candles – Honoring the Light of the World
- Crucifix – The Agape Love of our Incarnate God
- Presider’s Chair – The Role of Christ on Earth
- Ambo – Proclaiming the Word of God
- Credence Table – The Sacred Vessels
- Incense – Prayers of the Faithful
- Tabernacle/Candle – God dwells with us.
- Monstrance – The Body and Blood of Christ
Simple Catholic Truths
As we discussed in our previous posts, the layout of our churches reveals a progression from earth to heaven. Borrowing from God’s original dwelling place, the Temple of Israel, we begin as lowly sinners (from the outside, through the doors and into the vestibule), enter into the gathering of Baptized believers (the nave), and finally approach the Sanctuary – that Holy place of heaven on earth. Let’s take a closer look at the Sanctuary…
Many outsiders have difficulty understanding the Mass as a sacrifice. However, if we return to Jesus’ own words this truth instantly becomes clear: [Mt 22:19-20, emphasis mine]
19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
First, these words spoken at the Last Supper were part of the Passover celebration. This sacred ritual was used by ancient Jews to “remember” the first Passover in Egypt. But the word remember does not simply mean to recall or keep in your memory. It is not an exercise to bring events of the past into the present day, instead, it is intended to take the current observers back into that day in history. To that end, Jews celebrating the Passover meal dress and tell stories and eat in a manner that unites them to that original Passover meal – as if they were actually there. In a manner of speaking they are not just recalling the Passover, but actually participating in that Passover.
Similarly, Catholics see the Mass as an opportunity to participate in that Last Supper in the upper room with Jesus Himself.
Finally, Jesus was clear in saying that this meal was the sacrifice of the New Covenant. This is the last and final covenant in God’s plan of salvation that began with Adam. But in Jewish tradition, each covenant was bound with a sacrifice and performed by a priest. At this New Covenant, Jesus is both the High Priest and the Sacrifice. The altar is the table of the Last Supper and place of the Sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
The altars in many Catholic churches include icons that depict the Last Supper or a mother pelican feeding her youngsters. The pelican is said to be an example of perfect sacrificial Love (See Ps 102 NAB) and as such is a perfect reflection of Christ on the Cross.
It is true that Jesus’ bloody sacrifice on Calvary was perfect, once and for all – never to be needed again. However, in the celebration of the Mass, His eternal sacrifice is presented again so that we not only remember, but become part of it. When approaching the altar in the sanctuary during Mass, humbly reflect on what is about to happen. When we receive the Eucharist, we become one flesh with the Lamb of God (Gn 2:24). Wow!
Either on, or directly adjacent to the altar, you will always find candles in prominent display. They are an important part of the altar’s symbolism, since Jesus Christ revealed himself to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12 and 9:5). More than simple wax candles, they are, and we should be, the light of the world…
Crucifixion was a Roman method of capital punishment intended not only to prolong and maximize pain, but to humiliate the victim. It was an act of political terror designed to control the population into submission to Caesar. But the Romans failed to humiliate our Lord. They failed to control the crowds. To the contrary, our Savior was crucified in Glory to the Father and the disciples were given the kingdom of God and began to proclaim the Word to the world.
As we discussed above, the Mass is a celebration of sacrifice, the ultimate and eternal Sacrifice. It was Christ, willingly dying on the cross, that was the means of our salvation. The Crucifixion therefore is the center of the Mass and appropriately the Crucifix is prominent in every Catholic church.
It is there, visible, prominent, and proud so that all so that Christians will never forget.
It might seem like a simple piece of furniture but like everything else in and around the Sanctuary, the presider’s chair has special significance. Even prior to the time of Christ, the chair (or throne) was nearly a universal symbol of teaching authority. Jesus taught His disciples while seated in the synagogue. Jesus himself used such terms when he spoke of Judaism’s chief teachers in his time:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you” (Matthew 23:1).
The authority of the Pharisees was given by God, although their human actions were self-serving, two-faced and disappointing.
In our churches today, the presider’s chair signifies the continuation of God’s gift to certain men bestowed to them through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. There sits the successors to Jesus’ apostles and the appointed authority of Jesus’ teaching. As such, this chair should be occupied by only ordained clergy—a bishop, priest, or deacon.
So the next time you are in church and have this urge to sit in the presider’s chair, try to control yourself… at least until you are ordained. 🙂
Near the holy place of the Altar, but still within the Sanctuary, we see a place of teaching, a place where the Word of God is told to the faithful.
This place is reserved for the Word of God and is called the Ambo. At the Altar, the Church offers the Body of Christ, at the Ambo, the Church proclaims the Word of the Lord.
The celebration of the Mass has two most-critical components: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. During the Liturgy of the Word, there are (typically) readings from the Old Testament, a Responsorial Psalm and a reading from a Holy Gospel. All three of these proclamations are voiced only from the Ambo, in order to focus our attention to those Words spoken there.
Similar to the altar, candles are commonly part of the Ambo, either placed there before Mass or brought just prior to the reading of the Gospel. In either case, the visual is a reminder that as we sit, we are hearing the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Next time during Mass, think about what those candles really mean. Think of John’s Gospel… we are hearing the Light of the World!
Mostly out of sight during our Mass, the credence table is no less a critical part of our sacred liturgy. It might be a freestanding piece of furniture or a ledge on a niche in the wall, but on this surface rest the vessels used in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Here are the bowl, water, and towels the priest uses for washing his hands at the offertory, as well as the major part of the bread and wine gift offerings. [A smaller portion of the bread and wine are usually brought forward by members of the congregation during the offertory.]
The wine and water are usually kept in cruets. The unconsecrated wafers (called hosts until consecration) are kept in a special container. The chalice is kept on the credence table from the beginning of Mass until the offertory, when it is moved to the altar.
At the end of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, after distributing Holy Communion, the priest will often disappear for a minute or two. People often look around, trying to decide what to do (stand/kneel/sit??).
At this time the priest is over at the credence table, attending to the vessels used during Mass. During this time, the priest is purifying the Chalice, cruets and other vessels that hold the residual parts of the precious Body and Blood of Christ. As such, we must remember that our Lord is still present- Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity and deserves our complete attention and adoration. I think kneeling is appropriate during this time, until the priest has returned and taken his seat at the presider’s chair.
Now we pause at the Catholic practice of “smell and bells” in our liturgy. Many non-Catholics just don’t understand the Biblical, historical and spiritual significance to these practices and it’s really a loss, since the sounding of bells is an ancient Christian tradition. Without getting too far afield with the topic of bell ringing, I would like to point out one common and significant use of bells in our liturgy. Catholics rings “Sanctus” bells to signal the transubstantiation or consecration of the Eucharist (changing bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ). This bell ringing comes in the form of three distinct rings during the consecration to remind us of the Trinity – three persons in one now Incarnate God. Next time at the Consecration, listen to the bells and take in that Divine mystery.
At other times during the Catholic liturgies, the use of incense is common. Not only common, it is profoundly and sensationally apparent. And that, is exactly the point. We are physical beings, and born with senses such as sight and touch and taste and smell, we have an opportunity to experience God through our senses.
The purpose of incensing and the symbolic value of the smoke is that of purification and sanctification. The smoke also symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven. In the Psalms we read –
“Let my prayer come like incense before you; the lifting up of my hands, like the evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141).
An in the book of Revelation, we hear another account relating the prayers to God with the use of incense:
3 “And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; 4 and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.” (Rev 8:3,4)
So we see that the Bible draws a parallel between the use of incense and the prayers of the faithful.
That Biblical tradition is maintained in the Catholic liturgy today and all of the faithful should understand its significance.
In a Catholic church, the tabernacle is the place of Jesus’s true presence. It is the place where Eucharistic hosts, consecrated during the Holy Mass, are reposed. But the tabernacle is not simply a lock box for the most precious Divine gift, it is a link to our Jewish heritage.
In keeping with Old Testament derived tradition, near the tabernacle is a special lamp, that shines permanently indicating the presence of Almighty God. Yes, of course God is always with His believers, but in a special and Divinely directed physical way, Christ is with us forever in the unique form of the consecrated hosts. God is with us completely and physically, just as He was with Moses in the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies.
Here in the tabernacle, the true Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord exists. In our American churches, this light, often called the sanctuary lamp, is a red candle.
The tabernacle is an element that sets a Catholic church apart from any other place on earth. As long as you see that red candle burning, you know that God is with us… not just metaphorically, not just in our hearts but actually, physically present. I hope next time you see that red candle burning it takes on a new and special meaning.
So now we know that Jesus Himself, the Incarnate Son of God, is present in the Tabernacle in all Catholic churches. But wait, there’s more!
As I said, we are physical beings and as physical children of God, we desire… no… we need, time in front of our Savior. St. Paul tells us that our true “face to face” time with God will take place later (1 Cor 13:12) but during our earthly journey we have the opportunity to meet God in the physical form that He left for us.
At various times, Catholic churches take a consecrated host (the true Body and Blood of Christ) and place it in a display ornament called the monstrance. This public display is called Adoration and is available in most churches at least one time per week. Some parishes support the special gift of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
A Monstrance comes in many variety of designs but central to all is the veneration and worship of God as creator and redeemer. Most monstrances are cylindrical in nature, with radiant elements, the focal point of which is the exposed true presence of Christ.
My own parish of St. Martin De Porres in Yorba Linda, CA started 24/7 Adoration about a year and a half ago. At first, it was a challenge, especially during the weekday-early morning/night shift hours. However, with our simple Adoration beginnings, the power of the Holy Spirit has settled on our parish and now Adoration is filled with multiple parishioners at all hours.
A real energy has infused in our faith community and that is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. Look into your parish schedule for Adoration hours and take advantage of this most precious gift!
So that is the end of our SimpleCatholicTruth tour of a typical Catholic church. If you have never attended a Catholic Mass before, I invite you to the celebration. Open the doors and step inside God’s house. You’ll find a quiet personal peace with Christ found nowhere else.
If you are Catholic, take a moment and think about what you’ve seen on this tour. Next time you go, take a moment and “read” your church. Look around and begin to understand what you see and what gifts you have. Of course you’ll find some architectural and cultural differences from church to church, but I think by and large you will find the common elements of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.