More than Meets the Eye
All that We Have: The Image of Christ the High Priest in the Daily Mass Altar
Published on July 19-20, 2014 in the Parish Bulletin of Saint Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
In the central niche of the front side of the altar in the Daily Mass Chapel is the image of Our Lord Jesus Christ as the Eternal High Priest. This image is based on the frontispiece of the 1911 printing of the 18th edition of the Missale Romanum by Verlag Pustet, the publishing house of Friedrich Pustet II (1831-1902) in Regensburg (also historically known as Ratisbon), Bavaria, Germany. It was also the image that I used in the invitations to my Ordination to the Priesthood. The original illustration was designed by Br. Maximilian Schmalzl, CSsR (1850-1930), a German painter from Kloster Gars in Gars am Inn, Bavaria.
The image in our altar features Christ the Eternal High Priest looking directly at the viewer and holding the Sacred Host over the precious chalice of gold as though He were about to distribute Holy Communion. The priest celebrating Mass in our Chapel assumes the same position during the Communion Rite. In this way, the viewer is able to see a visible connection between the sign and the reality of the mysteries being celebrated upon the altar. He hopefully perceives that there is more here than meets the eye: the painted image of Christ points to His living image found in the person of the priest, in the sacrifice that is offered at Mass, and in the altar where that sacrifice is offered.
Christ the High Priest is also depicted wearing the white alb of the baptized, the tunicle of a subdeacon, the dalmatic of a deacon, the stole and chasuble of a priest, and the pallium of a bishop. Christ Himself has the fullness of the Priesthood and all others share in His one Priesthood: the lay faithful in the common priesthood and the ordained in the ministerial priesthood.
The rich red of the Lord’s vestments as well as the wounds from the Crucifixion on His hands and feet recall His bloody sacrifice on the cross, the very sacrifice re-presented in an unbloody manner on our altar at every celebration of the Holy Mass (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 1366, 1367).
In the original illustration by Br. Maximilian, CssR, Christ stands on the mensa, the stone table top of the altar. In our present depiction, He is found in the altar itself, in its central niche. Both positions of this figure of Christ the Priest vested for the celebration of the Mass and holding the chalice and the consecrated Host evoke the words of Preface V of Easter in the Roman Missal: Christ “showed himself the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of sacrifice.”
This image then is meant to draw attention to the many signs of Christ’s presence not only in our Chapel but also in our liturgy, inviting the viewer to the altar, the seeker to Christ, and the faithful to Communion. All of them are called by Christ the High Priest to “approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help” (Heb. 4:16).