“As the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for her young, my home is by Your altars, my king and my God. Happy are those who dwell in Your house.”¹
Amidst the grief of Good Friday and the Passion of our Savior, hope emerges from the unveiled altar at St. Mary’s.
Each year the altar is stripped. When the Maundy Thursday liturgy ends, the Pastor, Deacons, and altar servers remove the crosses and candles. The statuary have been veiled. The Eucharist is removed late Thursday after a period of Adoration (“Could you not watch with me one hour?” Matthew 26:40), and the Church becomes cold and bare.
Yet by God’s grace, what appears? Carved in the stone of the bare altar—visible only on this darkest of days—twelve birds surround a Chalice and Host. During my first Lent at St. Mary’s some years ago, I marveled, “What does this mean?”
Psalm 84 is the answer. Fly to the Lord! Find the only lasting home for yourself (and if called to marriage as your vocation, a nest for your young). But even more truth, goodness, and beauty is presented in the altar at St. Mary’s. The birds divide six by six on either side, looking to the Chalice and Host—a clear reference to the twelve Apostles and the authority of the Church through valid orders via Apostolic succession.
Who does the Chalice and Host represent? Our living Savior! The boundary of the bas-relief in which the birds are carved is even bent heavenward by the Chalice and Host. Should we be surprised? No!
At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.²
Yet there is more. Above each bird is carved a sculpted point, aimed downward specifically and particularly, at each bird. Is this not a reminder of God’s knowledge of and care for each one of us?
Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.³
Yet there is more. Recessed in the altar is the royal seal, the Alpha and the Omega of the eternal I AM (Revelation 1:8). This is interwoven with the chi rho—the Christogram represented by the first two letters of the Greek spelling of the name of Christ. Yet the rendering in stone of this seal makes it seem to emerge faintly, as if through a veil—where Heaven touches earth in the beauty and truth of the Sacred Liturgy.
There is more. But shall we go farther? One almost dares not! But so we do not exalt ourselves—God forbid—to anything akin to St. Paul’s vision (2 Corinthians 12:4), we must finish with our feet on earth, for the sake of the smallest child and for myself (Matthew 19:14). The immense solidity of this massive stone altar calls to mind C.S. Lewis’ allegorical picture of the sacrifice of Our Savior in The Lion The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
At last the rabble had had enough of this. They began to drag the bound and muzzled Lion to the Stone Table . . . [saying] “Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor?”
Yes! “Yes, yes, yes,” is the resounding answer. Yes, on this Stone Table our Redemption appears.
Aslan ended soul’s-winter in Narnia. But Aslan was simply Lewis’ picture of our glorious Savior. The Stone Table is stripped and bare today, but the victory is already won! We know how The Story ends—not just in Narnia, but in reality and truth.
For I know my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God! (Job 19:25-26, John 11:25-26).
Christianity . . . so very richly!
¹ Psalm 84:4 (84:3, if using a protestant translation)
² Philippians 2:10-11
³ Luke 12:6-7