Lover at the Altar.
I will go to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense. – Song of Songs 4:6
They say that before a man dies; his whole life flashes before him. The same must be true before a man weds. Placed in front of his future wife, a man examines himself, his strengths and faults, wonders whether he’s worthy of such a woman. How much more intense is the self-examination of a man about to be ordained a priest? The priest’s bride is Holy Church, who has marched triumphantly throughout the ages, who is “Fairer than the moon, brighter than the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array.”
Love for this bride is what made the Eternal Word become a man. At the incarnation, Christ was betrothed to humanity. As the babe in Bethlehem, he could look upon humanity and cry out: “At last, this is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone!” Love drove Christ to the cross. He could have come down, as Almighty God, but remained so that man could live with Him and be as He is. The entire Bible tells of a God who is captivated by his bride, a lost and wandering humankind in great need of love. A man becomes a priest because love for God and for His Church has held him captive. He has been struck by the arrow of love and urged on by its inner flame.
Joined to the person of Christ, the Bridegroom, the priest is also a bridegroom. He is a married man, a father with children, a loving husband. Every man is thus called to a vocation of marriage and fatherhood. These only manifest in different ways through the sacraments of matrimony, which binds one to an earthly wife for raising up the human race and of holy orders, which binds one to the Church for the raising up of spiritual children.
The Church’s identity is shrouded in nuptial language and symbolism from Scripture. Referring to the Church in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes: “And the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Eph 5:31-32). Christ himself used wedding imagery in his parable of the King’s banquet where those without proper garments were cast away. John the Baptist testified of Jesus: He who has the bride is the bridegroom.” (Jn 3:29).
The book of Revelation was originally called “Apocalypsis” from Greek, meaning “unveiling”. This doesn’t point to a grand end-of-the-world scene as much as to the unveiling of a bride at her wedding. The chapters account in detail a heavenly wedding which closely resembles the Catholic Mass. There is exultant worship with incense, a book with seals and an altar. Most telling, one of the angels gathered around heaven’s throne in Revelation exclaims: “The marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.” (Rev 19:7).
The altar is closely associated with marriage. We see in St. Peter’s basilica, a towering canopy over the altar, called a baldachin. These hangings over the altar were used in various churches throughout Europe, especially during the dramatically charged Baroque period. They bring to mind the image of a royal wedding: “His banner raised over me is love.” (Song 2:4). When the priest arrives to begin Mass, he will bend over and kiss the altar in a show of fondness and dedication to the love that preserves him.
In the days before the Second Vatican Council, a priest would say this prayer before Mass: “I will go unto the altar of God.” Many layers of meaning are contained in this little prayer which originates from Psalm 43. First, it hearkens to Jesus’s ascent to Calvary. Standing before that gruesome hill, beaten and bloodied by the sins and hatred of man, arms outstretched, Jesus prepared to embrace the cross like a lover. He went willingly and would willingly do it again. The prayers at the foot of the altar also echo a verse from the Song of Songs where the love-stricken bridegroom says: “I will get me to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.” (Song 4:6). A tone of eagerness is felt. The wedding between the Bridegroom and the Bride is about to take place at the altar, the Calvary, the hill of spices, and the world cannot miss it.
A priest at the altar is a profound reflection of the love story between God and his people. His presence tells all that God dwells with us. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The consecration of the Most Holy Eucharist is the marital act of the priest. It is the principal way that he shows his love for the Church, by making truly manifest the love Christ has for her. This is a divine form of intimacy that exceeds all earthy intimacies. Marriage is all about self-offering, being lost in the other and giving thanks for the other. The Eucharist is thanksgiving, an attitude of self-offering which will impel them (priests) to unite the offering of themselves to the Eucharistic offering of Christ (Pastores Dabo Vobis, Ch. 5, 48).
The more he engages himself in the offering of the Mass, the more a priest will grow in his vocation. This is God’s intimate working through him and the disposition of his heart makes all the difference. A disinterested priest is a cold one. A priest who believes he has no more to give or even worse, wishes to give no more, is in imminent danger of spiritual death. His love has died out and desperately needs to be rekindled. Only devotion to the Eucharist can do this. Let him think very intently about what he is doing at the altar and place all joys, frustrations, sorrows, weaknesses and pain upon it. Let him place his very self upon the altar and be there, the most fervent lover.
To be continued in: The Lover’s Heart