1. The apostles offered the holy sacrifice on a table in a dwelling-house.
(See Acts ii. 46; Col. iv. 15.) To this day the table whereon St. Peter offered the holy sacrifice may be seen in the Church of St. John Lateran in Rome. The Council of Nice (325), speaks of the holy table on which the priest immolates without bloodshed the Lamb of God, Whose body and blood is the spiritual food of Christians. A table was used because it was on a table that the holy Mass was instituted by Our Lord on Holy Thursday; that table, made of cedar-wood, is still preserved in Rome. Another reason for using a table was that it could be easily hidden or removed in times of persecution.
2. In the time of the great persecution of the Christians, the holy sacrifice was offered on the tombs of the martyrs in subterranean passages (the Catacombs).
It is from this that the altar to this day has the form of a tomb, and that relics of the saints are deposited in it. Another reason why relics are placed in the altars is to denote the communion we hold with the saints in heaven, and it is on account of the relics being there that the priest frequently kisses the altar. When the Church had emerged from the Catacombs, the churches were erected by preference upon the spots where the saints and martyrs were interred (witness St. Peter’s in Rome), and eminent ecclesiastics were buried in the crypts. Hence arose the custom at funerals of having the body in the church when the requiem is sung. And the lights which are burned during divine worship date from the time when the Christians assembled to hear Mass in dark, subterranean chambers. The burning lights also symbolize divine grace, which enlightens and vivifies, and which is communicated at no time so freely as during holy Mass. The candles upon the altar signify, furthermore, the presence of Him Who is the Light of the world, the God-man, Who enlightens us by His word.
3. “When the period of persecution was over, the holy sacrifice of the Mass was offered in churches upon altars of stone.
In old times a table or mound was formed of stone, and decked as an altar. Noe, on coming out of the ark, built an altar, and the other patriarchs did the same. In the Temple at Jerusalem there were two altars, the altar of burnt-offering in the outer court, and the altar of incense in the sanctuary. Altars must be either composed entirely of stone, or a stone, blessed by the bishop and containing relics, must be let into the top. On this the chalice and paten are placed, to signify that Christ is the foundation and cornerstone on Which the Church rests (Ps. cxvii. 22), and a threefold linen cloth must be spread upon the altar, both because Our Lord was wrapped in a linen cloth when He lay in the sepulchre, and also to absorb any drops of the precious blood that might perchance fall from the chalice. On every altar there must be a cross, because the sacrifice of the cross is renewed there, and also two candlesticks with wax tapers. The altar is generally placed so that the officiating priest looks towards the east; the reason of this is because when he celebrates the Mass he lifts his heart and hands to Him Who is the source of spiritual light. The altar is raised, both to denote its dignity, to enable all who are in the church to see the ceremonies, and also because the great oblation of our redemption was offered upon an eminence visible from afar.
Churches are usually built on a height, or in the centre of a township. The styles of ecclesiastical architecture are many and varied.
A hill, or some eminence, used to be selected as the site of a church, because of old high places were considered sacred; under the Old Dispensation God frequently manifested Himself to mortals on a mountain; Our Lord often withdrew to a mountain to pray, and the Temple of Jerusalem, the type of the Christian Church, was situated upon a mountain. On an eminence one is more disposed for prayer and recollection; one is further aloof from the noise of the busy world, one feels nearer to God. Christ Himself said His Church was to be built upon a rock, and He was crucified upon Mount Calvary. When churches are situated in the centre of a town or village, it should remind us that in the Blessed Sacrament the Good Shepherd loves to dwell in the midst of His sheep. The Church of St. Peter in Rome is the largest basilica in the world.
Both the external and internal arrangements of churches are adapted to awaken and aid devotion.
In regard to the exterior, the church is larger and higher than ordinary dwelling-houses, because it is the house of the most high God. It looks toward the east, because it is destined for the worship of the Sun of justice. It is built in the form of a cross, because the sacrifice of the cross is re-enacted within its walls, and the doctrine of the Crucified preached. It has a spire, pointing to heaven, our home, to admonish us to “seek those things that are above” (Col. iii. 1). Bells are hung in the tower to summon us to divine worship or call us to prayer; the spire is surmounted by a cross, the emblem of salvation, whereby God is reconciled with man. The interior of the church is divided into three parts; the porch, where in former days the catechumens and penitents used to. kneel, and which ought to remind us of the preparation necessary before entering the church; the nave, which is the part appropriated to the faithful, wherein, as in Noe’s ark, they are saved from eternal perdition; and the choir, where the singers formerly sat, but which is now set apart for the clergy. It is separated from the body of the church by a rail or communion table. At the entrance of the church we see the holy water stoup, reminding us that we ought to approach God with pure hearts; in the interior is one or more altars; over the high altar is the tabernacle wherein the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, and before which the sanctuary lamp is kept perpetually burning, to symbolize the Light of the world there present. There are also pictures and statues of saints and angels, who assist unseen at the sacred offices, besides the font, and all the other furniture of a church, with which every Catholic is familiar. The “dim religious light” that pervades the building, owing to the colored glass of the windows, reminds us that here below we understand the things of God only in a dark manner. Those people who say that it is unnecessary to go to church, because they can say their prayers anywhere, should consider that in the churches Our Lord is actually present upon our altars, that the atmosphere of the sacred edifice disposes us to recollection, and that petitions offered there have more power than those offered else where.
The consecration of a church is performed by the bishop, but a church can, with the permission of the bishop, be employed for divine service without consecration.
By God’s command Moses had to anoint the tabernacle with the oil of unction (Exod. xl. 9), and Solomon’s Temple was dedicated by that monarch himself. When King Antiochus had profaned the Temple by setting up idols within it, it had to be cleansed and dedicated anew; this was the origin of the feast of the Dedication (1 Mach. iv. 54). It appertains to the office of a bishop alone to consecrate churches, but he may give leave for Mass to be said in any building set apart for the purpose. The principal ceremonies of the consecration of a church are as follows: The bishop first prostrates himself before the principal entrance, and recites the Litany of the Saints; then rising up, he goes three times around the outside of the building, sprinkling the walls with holy watery each time that he passes the door he knocks upon it with his crozier; finally he makes the sign of the cross upon the threshold with the crozier to signify that nothing can resist the force of the cross, and enters the church, where he falls on his knees and invokes the Holy Spirit. He then draws the letters of the Greek and Latin alphabets upon the pavement of the church, which is strewn with ashes, to signify that all the nations of the earth are called into the Church of Christ; next he goes round the interior of the building three times, sprinkling the walls with holy water, and three times up the centre and across it; this is in honor of the Holy Trinity, and of the crucifixion of Christ; afterwards he anoints the walls in twelve places, where lighted tapers are affixed, in memory of the twelve apostles who spread abroad the light of the Gospel, and then proceeds to consecrate the altar. From time immemorial the anniversary of the dedication of a church formed a yearly festival in the parish, but abuses having crept in, one festival was appointed for the whole Church, the third Sunday in October, to be kept as the feast of the Dedication. If any grievous crime is committed in a church, such as murder, or suicide, and it is known publicly, the sacred edifice must be instantly closed and dedicated anew. This must also be done if a church is rebuilt, either wholly or to such an extent that the walls are in great part pulled down. Only under most exceptional circumstances, in time of war, or if a church is burned down, or at open-air festivals, may Mass be said outside the church, and express permission from the bishop must invariably be obtained. For saying Mass on board ship, the sanction of the Holy See is necessary. On such occasions a portable altar, blessed by the bishop, is used; that is, a square stone slab, large enough to admit of the chalice and Host being placed upon it.
This article, 12. THE PLACE WHERE MASS IS TO BE CELEBRATED is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.