Today’s beautiful Liturgy of the dedication of this church and altar involves the most ancient signs and symbols of our Christian Faith. These are forever bound up with that first Covenant, that first saving contract God made with the People of Israel, which was fulfilled in the New Covenant made in Christ, the only Son of God, through whose death and resurrection we have the promise of eternal life.
Today through water, oil, incense and fire, the truths and mysteries of our faith, are brought to life for us, here and now, as Christ is present among us and within us.
With this church, we are sprinkled with the waters of new life to remind us of our baptism. This water recalls the beginning of creation, when the Spirit of God breathed on the waters making them the spring of holiness. This water echoes the waters of the great flood and those of the Red Sea, both signs that point to baptism which frees us from death. In the waters of the River Jordan, the Lord Jesus was baptised so that we, united to Him, might pass from death to new life, cleansed from sin so we might rise in glory. (cf Rite of Baptism)
The altar and walls of this Church are solemnly anointed with the sacred oil of Chrism. For the People of Israel, first chosen by God to first hear His plan of salvation, anointing is a sign of abundance and joy. It signals God’s call and commission for service. It cleanses and heals, and makes radiant with beauty and strength. In Christ this anointing sanctifies. It conveys the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit to everyone and everything it touches. (cf CCC 1293)
Our incense symbolises the worship we offer God, our fragrant prayers ascending to heaven. Incense venerates holy people, places and objects. During the Mass, we use incense to honour the different ways in which Christ is present – in the signs of the altar and the cross; in the proclamation of the Gospel; in the gifts of bread and wine that become Christ’s body and blood; in the people gathered and in the person of the priest and the bishop.
And then there is the fire of a new flame, recalling God’s presence to Moses at the Burning Bush, and pre-eminently signifying the inextinguishable light of Christ’s resurrection which dispels the gloom of sin and the darkness of death.
Dear friends, these ancient signs and symbols of our faith speak to us of the truth of what it means to have been rescued by Christ, of what it means to share His life, of what it means, here on earth, to participate in mysteries of our salvation, of what it means to anticipate the life of heaven.
These signs and symbols which we use to dedicate this church building, this expression of Christ’s Body, are those with which, we too, are consecrated through the Sacraments as that Body’s living members.
We were baptised in water and anointed in confirmation. Our worship and prayer rise like incense. We have received the light of Christ as the people of His resurrection. What happens to us as members of Christ’s Body, the Church, is reflected in what happens to this church and altar as we dedicate them to God’s glory, for His praise and service, and for our sanctification.
Christ is the anointed one sent by God. At the centre of this rite of dedication is the anointing of this new altar, itself a symbol of Christ. We gather around the altar of Christ to be caught up supremely into the celebration of the Eucharist where the Sacrifice of Christ, offered once and for all on the cross, is re-presented to us sacramentally.
Thinking about today’s liturgy, I found myself asking: I wonder when and where the first ever Christian altar was dedicated? Don’t shout out the answer, but maybe someone here has an idea? There must have been a first Christian altar dedicated somewhere. But that question – which is the first Christian altar to be dedicated – actually has a much more profound answer and Pope Francis spells it out in his teaching on the Mass.
Through the holy signs of the Eucharist, says Pope Francis, ‘the Sacrifice of the new covenant sealed by Jesus on the altar of the Cross is made continually present by the Church. The Cross was the first Christian altar, and when we approach the altar to celebrate Mass, our memory turns to the altar of the Cross where the first sacrifice was made.’ (General Audience, 28 Feb 2018)
Whenever we come to the altar on which the Mass is celebrated, we are brought back to Christ crucified and risen, to His sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. The Lord Jesus is the mediator who brings a new covenant so that we might worship God in spirit and in truth, washed clean in the blood of the lamb once slain who lives forever.
This church and altar are dedicated today so that we, so that you, might worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. All that we are about is ordered to our living out the call of the Lord Jesus ‘to be holy as our heavenly father is holy’. (Mt 5:48) In this, we have the great intercession and encouragement of the saints.
In the early Church, the first Christians often celebrated the Eucharist over the tombs of those martyred for their faith. And so, into this altar we place the relic of saint, a reminder that that every Christian is called to holiness, that every Christian must be a witness to Christ.
‘…[Do] not forget,’ says Pope Francis, that ‘the altar which is Christ’ is ‘always in reference to the first altar which is the Cross and, upon the altar which is Christ, we bring our small gifts, the bread and the wine which will become so much: Jesus himself who gives himself to us.’ (General Audience, 28 Feb 2018)