A large and heavy parcel arrives swathed in layers of packing and customs forms. I know exactly what it is because it is a present. In a sense, it is a gift from myself, since I actually commissioned and ordered it, but in reality it is the gift of my late friend Gerry. He left me a small legacy and I have been at pains to make sure that I spend it on a suitable memorial to him, something that will remind me to pray for him; something worthy of his own love of Faith and Tradition. I found it in the work of an American craftsman who makes travelling altars and calls his enterprise St Joseph’s Apprentice.
Canon Law stipulates that Mass is to be celebrated in a sacred place and on an altar. Such rules were made for man, not man for them, and even under an older, stricter code, missionaries, POWs and hospital chaplains clearly didn’t refuse to celebrate the Mass outside of a church when a pastoral necessity required it. There are pictures of a young St John Paul II celebrating Mass on an upturned kayak on a Polish mountainside.
Despite the lack of an altar, an essential feature of the sacred in such circumstances was an altar stone or perhaps an antimensium, a linen corporal with a relic sewn into it. Every permanent altar in a Catholic church has a relic of a martyr set in a piece of stone inserted into the “mensa”, or tabletop part of the altar. It might be as small as 5 x 5 inches. This is one of the reasons the priest kisses the altar at the beginning and end of Mass (and in the Extraordinary Form, at every point before addressing the people). The altar also represents Christ’s body which was itself, so to speak, the locus of the sacrifice which saves us. This is why the priest leans on the altar at some point and literally rests on it when consecrating the bread and wine and consuming the Host, to express his closeness to Christ.
The relics connect us to the Church of the catacombs where Mass was celebrated on the tombs of martyrs. The celebration of the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection under sacramental signs in such an eerie place was a forceful expression of faith and hope in the power of Christ’s sacrifice in the face of a hostile world and the stark incontrovertibility of human death. It was the liturgical equivalent of parking your tanks on the lawns of hell.
Devotees of so-called ‘‘coffee table Masses’’ may relish a warm sense of fellowship but I find not much else in the “sign value” of such celebrations. I do, however, retain memories of the power of Mass celebrated in our home hours after a bereavement. The good priest knew that better than offering many words of faith in the Resurrection was to make its promise present on the dining room table for us. Precious too was Mass celebrated under an oak tree in the lee of the purple-covered uplands of Exmoor.
But the next time I have to celebrate Mass in a home or a hotel room somewhere remote, I will have a portable altar. Made of polished Spanish cedar wood, it looks a little like a Victorian letter-writing desk – a large box with a hinged top which folds out to form a mensa about 3ft by 1ft. It has a small altar stone set in the middle to be kissed as a reminder to love and to imitate the mystery I celebrate, in which Christ is priest, altar and victim.
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