“Altared” States

by Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President, St. Mary’s University

“… and he builded an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD.” ~Genesis 26: 25~

I must confess that I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking about the principles behind altars and ambos. My first conscious consideration of altars came when I was struggling to understand homophones—words that sound the same but have different spellings. I remember the disappointment of a spelling test where I wrote alter instead of altar and couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to pay closer attention to its meaning and history. All this because St. Mary’s University  has just unveiled a new altar and ambo for our Fr. Michael J. Mc-Givney Hall where we celebrate Mass. Two years in the planning, the liturgical tables arrived in time for our end of term liturgy, celebrated by our Chancellor Bishop Fred Henry, and for an evening talk in the Saint John’s Bible Speakers’ Series by David Pereyra, a liturgical consultant who spoke about the history of the “two tables.” Again, my understanding of altars has always been limited, informed by the extraordinarily ornate masterpieces so familiar to us from Italian churches, but enriched by the many makeshift altars that I have had the pleasure to worship at as well. The earliest Christian altars were necessarily simple structures made of wood, and the matching design for St. Mary’s altar and ambo—made of wood, metal and glass—is meant to symbolize the “unity between Word and Sacrament.” As Dr. Michael Duggan, our CWL Chair for Catholic Studies explains, “Both the altar and the ambo are made of basic materials of the earth in recognition of the sacramental vision of reality that is central to Catholicism.” The key feature of this work is a remarkable fusion glass top, similar for both tables, that was meant to provide “meditation on light, which is God’s first creation” [Genesis 1:3], and indeed, the blues and golds in the design invoke the creation page from the Heritage Edition of the Saint John’s Bible. What was most remarkable for me at the consecration of the altar was afterwards watching the many guests running their fingers across the glass, marveling at the richness of the design and entering into conversation with friends and strangers alike. It reminded me that whatever shape or feel an altar might have, the reality is that it is meant to draw the people in to a most glorious feast. It is worth reflecting on this, and the experience has caused me to rethink my relationship to this important centerpiece of Christian prayer. It is not just that we are all called to the Supper of the Lord; but that we should accept this invitation with humility and eagerness.