Going to the Altar….Msgr. Ronald Knox


A very beautiful meditation about the Mass, the first part of the Mass, Going to the Altar. Father Knox apologizes because of the form in which it is written…to school age girls. I say, “Hurrah! Then I can understand it!” 😉

From The Mass in Slow Motion by Msgr. Ronald A. Knox, 1940’s

Glory to God in high heaven, and peace on earth to the men that are God’s friends. Luke ii.

We left the priest last Sunday at the foot of the altar; he has told us to get busy praying, and now he strides away from us; purposefully, like a man who knows what he is about; rather like our Lord going up to Judaea for his Passion, when the Gospels tell us that “ his face was set towards Jerusalem “.

I think you will find that most priests are walking rather fast, a. good deal faster than their usual pace, over those two or three steps. Indeed, if you could see inside the priest’s mind, you would almost say he was running up the steps.

It reminds me of some lines in a poem none of you know, a poem called “ David in Heaven.” It says thereHis feet trip without a slip, Going to the altar “.

Well, of course it wouldn’t really do to run; it isn’t a bit easy to run upstairs in a cassock, and then there is generally lace on the end of one’s alb, on purpose so that one shall put one’s foot through it if one isn’t careful. And besides, the motion of that dance is meant to be slow all through.

But the priest is mentally running, so to speak; all through that business with the server which we were talking about last Sunday he has been tantalizing himself, as it were, by not going up just yet; very much as some of you would tantalize yourselves, on receiving a really exciting parcel, by insisting on undoing the knots before you looked inside it.

The priest rushes up to the altar and kisses it; he can’t hold himself in any longer. He didn’t kiss it when he went up before, to arrange the things, because he wasn’t really beginning the Mass then. Now he goes up and kisses it. And the meaning of that movement in the dance is obvious, I hope, even to the stupidest of us.

It is meant to express the great desire we ought to have for God, the desire to get closer to Him, get in contact with Him, which is the real reason for our saying any prayers at all.

What he kisses, actually, is the corporal, the big white thing folded in nine squares which he takes out of the large green envelope on the top of the chalice.

Underneath the corporal is-what? Three thicknesses of altar-cloth. Underneath the altar-cloths is-what? A piece of stone all wrapped up in waxed cloth, so as to be waterproof.

That stone has been consecrated long ago, by a bishop; and the bishop in consecrating it fills up some holes in it with-what do you think? Tiny bits of relics of the saints.

People used to use relics of that kind rather freely in the Middle Ages; they used to put them into bridges, for instance, so as to be sure that the bridges held up.

I know a very old bridge on the upper Thames where you can still see, in the masonry at the side, a kind of socket where they obviously used to keep the relics of some saint long ago.

King Henry the Sixth (no, not King Henry the Eighth; King Henry the Sixth, Wars of the Roses) used to be regarded as a saint before the Reformation, and they kept a relic of his on the bridge between Caversham and Reading, and another relic of his, so I’ve been told, on the bridge at Bridgnorth.

Well, that’s all beside the point; nowadays it is only altars that have to have relics in them; but they’ve jolly well got to.

Even a military chaplain carries round with him an altar stone, with relics let into it, and he must never say Mass without having that stone on the soap-box or whatever it is he is using for an altar.

And if you ask why the Church should insist on that rather inconvenient regulation, the simplest answer is this; if he didn’t, he would start the Mass by telling a lie.

I hope you all remember that the Mass proper hasn’t started yet; all that preparation business we were talking about last Sunday was only preparation really.

Now, just as he is going to begin the Mass proper, the priest rushes up to the altar, kisses it, and says, “We beseech thee, O Lord, by the merits of those saints whose relics are here, and of all the saints, to be indulgent towards my sins”.

The saints whose relics are here – why is that so important? Why, because in the very early days, when the Christians at Rome were being persecuted, they used to meet for worship in the catacombs just outside the city.

The catacombs are miles and miles of underground passages, which you can still explore with a guide if you go out to Rome. There the Christians used to bury the poor mangled remains of their friends who had been killed in the persecution; and on the tombstones raised over these bodies of the martyrs the Roman bishop used to say Mass.

And when the priest, saying those words, kisses the tiny relics tucked away in the altar-stone, he reminds himself, if he has any sense of history, that by that action he is putting himself in touch, so to speak, with the Universal Church that is in Communion with Rome.

All altars, all over the world, are one altar really, the mother altar of Christendom; all altars must have relics in them, so as to remind us that we belong to the martyrs of the first century, and they to us.

St. John, in the Apocalypse, says “I saw beneath the altar the souls of all who had been slain for love of God’s Word”; some people think that is a reference to this habit of saying Mass over the martyrs’ tombs – it’s as old as that.

And when you see the priest kissing the altar just then, you may think of Christian history, all through these nineteen centuries, as linked up. The Mass is all one, in A.D. 48 or in A.D.1948; the Mass is all one, in the catacombs at Rome or in the tin chapel.

That altar-stone is a kind of keyhole through which you get a glimpse into the whole of our Christian past.

I would say this – that by far the easiest and least troublesome way of rearing a family of which you can be proud is to institute the family rosary in your home, and keep it up. It knits the family together with bonds 10,000 times stronger than any that can be forged by merely natural means. -Joseph Breig, 1950’s

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