February 8, 2018

Fr. Raymond J. De Souza: New altar at Notre Dame Cathedral lights up the sacrifice of Christ

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Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast dedicates the new altar at Notre Dame Cathedral on Feb. 2. Fr. de Souza was amazed at the uniqueness of the new altar. Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast dedicates the new altar at Notre Dame Cathedral on Feb. 2. Fr. de Souza was amazed at the uniqueness of the new altar. Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Ottawa
OTTAWA – On Feb. 2 in Ottawa’s Notre Dame Cathedral, I knew we would have a special liturgical experience. After all, a new altar for the cathedral was being dedicated, a beautiful rite that only happens once or twice in the life of a church. What I didn’t expect was something utterly and wholly unique.

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord Jesus is celebrated as a feast of light. The aged Simeon welcomes the newborn Jesus — 40 days having passed since Christmas — and proclaims Him not only the glory of Israel but the light for the nations (Gentiles).

In the temple of Jerusalem, the spiritual and national heart of the Jewish people, it would be remarkable enough to declare the child the “glory of Israel”; the temple was built to house the presence of God, the true glory of Israel. But to declare Jesus the “light of the nations” was bolder still, hearkening back to the original mission of the temple as a “house of prayer for all nations.”

I thought the dedication of the altar on the Feast of Presentation was apt, because the altar of a Catholic church is the place where the sacrifice of Calvary is made present. The temple of Jerusalem was the place of sacrifices, and so a liturgical feast that pointed to the temple seemed like a fitting occasion to dedicate a new altar.

What took me by surprise was the new altar. In renderings I had seen of it beforehand, it looked like a solid marble block with vertical yellow lines painted on it. It looked, to be honest, a bit odd. It turned out that the altar was not a solid block but hollow inside, and had 12 slits on each side, representing the apostles. The slits allowed you to see, as it were, inside the altar.

What I did not know — and I presume was intended to be a dramatic surprise — was that there are lights under the altar. When they were illuminated during the ritual of “lighting” the altar, it was certainly dramatic. What I thought were yellow lines was actually the light from inside the altar shining forth. The inside of the altar is gold plated, so the light that emerges is warm golden light, an effect not easily captured in photographs.

The altar therefore speaks of the sacrifice of Christ, as all altars do, as well as Christ as the light of the nations. That combination, dedicated on the Feast of the Presentation was exactly fitting, and utterly unique. The altar and its dedication at Notre Dame linked in a marvellous liturgical act the light of Christ and the sacrifices of the temple, fulfilled in Christ on the Cross. It was a literal once-in-several-lifetimes experience and it was a blessing to be on hand for it.

The proclamation of Jesus as the light of the nations — Lumen Gentium in Latin, the title of Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church — takes place at the Presentation, but we are more likely to think of the light of Christ at the Transfiguration, or at Easter. The Transfiguration also links the light of Christ to the sacrifice of Christ. It is Christ transfigured in glory who speaks to Moses to Elijah about His coming passion and death. Liturgically, just as Christmas is linked by 40 days to the appearance of Jesus in the temple, the place of sacrifice, so too the Transfiguration (Aug. 6) is linked by 40 days to the Triumph of the Cross (Sept. 14). Glory linked to sacrifice.

An additional blessing of the dedication? As is customary, relics of the saints are placed in a newly-dedicated altar. In Ottawa it was four Canadian saints: St. Francois de Laval, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Marguerite d’Youville and St. André Bessette. The Mass also concluded the pilgrimage of the relic of St. Francis Xavier across Canada, so the great relic of his forearm was also present (though not deposited in the altar!).

In Blessed John Henry Newman’s poem for Candlemas (Feb. 2) he writes: Like funeral lights for Christmas gone/ Old Simeon’s tapers shine./ And then for eight long weeks and more,/ We wait in twilight grey,/ Till the high candle sheds a beam/ On Holy Saturday.

As we prepare for Lent, another liturgical 40 days, the lights of the Presentation point us toward the other light that is coming, the light of the paschal candle. The light and the sacrifice, together.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)
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