Almost ten years ago, I visited Poland with a group of pilgrims. We visited the town of Oświęcim, more commonly known by its German name, Auschwitz. Among the things we saw in the extermination camp were Jewish and Catholic religious articles: thimbles that were used as cups and chalices, the lid from a tin can on which the priest prisoners consecrated the Eucharist. When a priest who survived the camp was asked what he used for Mass, he took off his glasses and said, “This is what we used: one lens served as the chalice with a drop of wine and on the other a piece of bread was placed, which served as the paten.”
Theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas writes,
If Christianity [makes] any sense, it must be because of something to do with eating that meal.
Given all that we’ve been through since, it seems like a long time ago, but it’s only been four months and one day since we gathered around this altar with Archbishop Hebda to dedicate it – to initiate it for service to our community, for the good of the Church, for the good of the world. The introduction to the dedication rite describes the altar as a table of sacrifice, the place of the Paschal banquet, as a sign of Christ himself: all familiar references. But before those descriptions is this compelling paragraph: “The Christian Is Also a Spiritual Altar.” Since Christ is the true altar, it says, his disciples are also spiritual altars on which the sacrifice of a holy life is offered to God. St. Gregory the Great writes,
What is God’s altar if not the souls of those who lead good lives? … Rightly, then, the heart of the just is said to be the altar of God.
The altar in our sanctuary is but a reminder for us to be living, breathing, walking, talking altars wherever we are, our very bodies being the means by which sacrifice and praise is continually offered to God.
You’ll recall that, at the dedication, the Archbishop anointed the altar – coated it, actually – with the oil of Chrism. At the end of Mass, he invited us to come up and smell the altar and experience that earthy fragrance of Chrism.
Given all that we’ve been through since, it seems like a long time ago, but we too were once anointed with Chrism at our baptism – initiated for service to our community, for the good of the Church, for the good of the world. While we may not still smell that fragrant aroma, it’s there. Although we’re not gathered today here in the same place at this altar, wherever you are right now, there’s an altar: that altar, of course, is YOU.
If Christianity makes any sense, it must be because of something to do with what happens, not only at this altar, but at that altar: the sacrifice, the celebration, the dying and rising, the feeding, the foot-washing. “…So that as I have done for you, you should also do.”