RDCA II, 16: Anointing, Incensing, Covering, Lighting

The core of the rite of dedication involves four actions, and section 16 of the RDCA Chapter Two’s introduction gives a brief background to each:

16. 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 and the walls of the church:
    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.
    The anointing of the church signifies that it is given over entirely and perpetually to Christian worship. In keeping with liturgical tradition, there are twelve anointings, or, where it is more convenient, four, as a symbol that the church is an image of the holy city of Jerusalem.
  • b) Incense is burned on the altar to signify that Christ’s sacrifice, there perpetuated in mystery, ascends to God as an odor 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)
    The incensation of the nave of the church indicates that the dedication makes it a house of prayer, but the people of God are incensed first, because they are the living temple in which each fanciful member is a spiritual altar.(See Rom 12:1)
  • 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 altar clearly 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, which is followed by the lighting of the church, reminds us that Christ is ‘a light to enlighten the nations’;(Lk 2:32) his brightness shines out in the Church and through it in the whole human family.


There’s a lot to talk about with each of these actions. Feel free to chime in on any one of them. I’ll offer some general thoughts, and perhaps Liam, Jeffery, or others visiting from PrayTell might zero in on what they see.

Each of these actions has a scriptural grounding. The three quotes cited are all New Testament images, but they also are rooted in the Psalms and the prophetic tradition of Judaism.

The focus is on the sacramental (signs instituted by Christ to give grace) and on communicating the reality of Christ and his people’s relationship with him. I’m not an expert in the preconciliar dedication liturgies. I noted a few comments at PrayTell suggesting the Tridentine Rite was superior to the reformed. Sight unseen, I would posit that the post-conciliar RDCA focuses less on the clergy and more on Christ. The trimming away of peripherals aims at making the presence and action of Christ more clear.

That said, I think having these four actions communicates a richness of tradition. Each could be explored in detail and would yield a mystagogical harvest in the hands of a skilled catechist.

In my present parish, after the stripping of the altar on Holy Thursday, it remains undressed until its preparation at the Easter Vigil. Given the order here, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t dress the altar first, then add altar candles last. Long parish tradition has been to walk in the free-standing candles first, then add the cloths. Worth a switch, or is it just a fussy consideration?

Have at it, people; what do you see? By the way, if I were getting more commentary on this series, I’d be inclined to split this post into four separate discussions on chrism, incense, cloths, and candles. I think we might do just as well saving the particular discussion of each action for the posts when we examine the rubrics and ritual texts.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, Rites. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to RDCA II, 16: Anointing, Incensing, Covering, Lighting

  1. I’ve been waiting till we get to the actual texts so as to comment on texts in relation to the rubrical actions.

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