Let’s take a quick look at the physical material of an altar:
9. In accordance with received custom in the Church and the biblical symbolism connected with an altar, the table of a fixed altar should be of stone, indeed of natural stone. But, at the discretion of the conference of bishops, any becoming, solid, and finely wrought material may be used in erecting an altar.
The pedestal or base of the table may be of any sort of material, provided it is becoming and solid.
Natural stone would preclude anything processed or smelted. My parish has a very fine wood altar–it’s not like anything I’ve seen elsewhere.
Some words on relics and images of saints:
10. The altar is of its very nature dedicated to the one God, for the eucharistic sacrifice is offered to the one God. This is the sense in which the Church’s practice of dedicating altars to God in honour of the saints must be understood. St. Augustine expresses it well: ‘It is not to any of the martyrs, but to the God of the martyrs, though in memory of the martyrs, that we raise our altars.’(Augustine, Contra Faustum 20, 21: PL 42, 384)
This should be made clear to the people. In new churches statues and pictures of saints may not be placed above the altar.
Likewise, when relics of saints are exposed for veneration, they should not be placed on the table of the altar.
11. It is fitting to continue the tradition in the Roman liturgy of placing relics of martyrs or other saints beneath the altar. But the following should be noted.
- a) Such relics should be of a size sufficient for them to be recognizable as parts of human bodies. Hence excessively small relics of one or more saints must not be placed beneath an altar.
- b) The greatest care must be taken to determine whether the relics in question are authentic. It is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful authenticity placed beneath it.
- c) A reliquary must not be placed on the altar or set into the table of the altar, but placed beneath the table of the altar, as the design of the altar permits.
When the rite of depositing relics takes place, it is highly recommended to keep a vigil at the relics of the martyr or saint, in accordance with the provisions of chapter two, no. 10.
My own parish has relics of our patron, but they would not pass the muster of 11a. In some instances, 11b is a difficult standard to apply. I once saw a small chest mounted under an altar, presumably with 11c in mind. The rite seems to presume that relics are permanently placed, and not in a way that they can be removed for occasional veneration. Given today’s emphasis on seeing (is believing?) is this as good as having relics available for occasional veneration? What do you think?