RDCA IV, 20-22: Relics and Dedication Rites

After the homily the rites particular to this liturgy take place, all pretty much in parallel to the dedication of a full church. Relics first:

20. If it is to take place, the relics of martyrs or other saints are placed beneath the altar after the Litany of the Saints. The rite is meant to signify that all who have been baptized in the death of Christ, especially those who have shed their blood for the Lord, share in Christ’s passion (see no. 5).

Then the Prayer of Dedication follows:

21. The celebration of the eucharist is the most important and the one necessary rite for the dedication of an altar. Nevertheless, in accordance with the universal tradition of the Church in both East and West, a special prayer of dedication is also said. This prayer is a sign of the intention to dedicate the altar to the Lord for all times and a petition for his blessing.

The meaning of these rites:

22. The rites of anointing, incensing, covering, and lighting the altar express in visible signs several aspects of the invisible work that the Lord accomplishes through the Church in its celebration of the divine mysteries, especially the eucharist.

  • a) Anointing of the altar: The anointing with chrism makes the altar a symbol of Christ, who, before all others, is and is called ‘The Anointed One’; for the Father anointed him with the Holy Spirit and constituted him the High Priest so that on the altar of his body he might offer the sacrifice of his life for the salvation of all.
  • b) Incense is burned on the altar to signify that Christ’s sacrifice, there perpetuated in mystery, ascends to God as an odour of sweetness, and also to signify that the people’s prayers rise up pleasing and acceptable, reaching the throne of God.(See Rev 8:3-4: An angel ‘who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. A large quantity of incense was given to him to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that stood in front of the throne; and so from the angel’s hand the smoke of the incense went up in the presence of God and with it the prayers of the saints.’)
  • c) The covering of the altar indicates that the Christian altar is the altar of the eucharistic sacrifice and the table of the Lord; around it priests and people, by one and the same rite but with a difference of function, celebrate the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection and partake of his supper. For this reason the altar is prepared as the table of the sacrificial banquet and adorned as for a feast. Thus the dressing of the altarc1early signifies that it is the Lord’s table at which all God’s people joyously meet to be refreshed with divine food, namely, the body and blood of Christ sacrificed.
  • d) The lighting of the altar teaches us that Christ is ‘a light to enlighten the nations’;(Luke 2:32) his brightness shines out in the Church and through it in the whole human family.

These Scriptural connections are important, not only for their homiletic value. One should keep in mind that preaching an altar dedication is not likely to be great if the address is crammed full of Scripture. A community does need to hear of these connections and be formed by them both before and after the dedication liturgy. Note the combination of sacrifice and meal. Note also the importance of the role of the laity: the priestly mission of the baptized as well as the evangelical project to “the whole human family.”

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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