Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Preparations for consecrating an altar

The Oxford Oratory website has this past week featured the preparations for the consecration of the new altar in the Sacred Heart Chapel. In order to make this available to others I have edited the post together as follows:

Catching up: we were due to consecrate our new altar in April. It will be consecrated later this week by Bishop Robert. We’ll film the whole thing for you to watch online and will post our preparations as we go along.
The new altar already has five of these crosses carved into its surface: one at each corner and one in the centre. Since the altar represents Christ’s body, these crosses represent his five wounds. During the rite of consecration, they are washed with specially prepared water (more on that later!), and anointed with chrism, as Christ’s wounds were washed and anointed before he was placed in the tomb. 
Altars contain a small cavity called a sepulchre. The relics of saints are buried in this sepulchre together with three grains of incense, and the cover sealed in place. This recalls the earliest custom of the Church of celebrating Mass always on the tombs of the martyrs. We are certain that the martyrs’ souls are in heaven, therefore their bodily remains are a link to them and to heaven itself.

These are the fragments of the bones of Pope St Fabian and St Sebastian that will be buried in the sepulchre when we consecrate our altar. Each altar must contain the relics of a martyr, a practice predicted in the book of the Apocalypse: ‘I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne’ (Rev. 6:9).

A martyr is literally a ‘witness’. Part of the function of an altar is to serve as a witness to our covenant with God, and so it is fitting that their relics are involved in its consecration.

The certificate in the background is the guarantee of their authenticity.

A record of the consecration is buried in the sepulchre with the relics. Thanks to Freddie Quartley, we have a very beautiful certificate for our altar. It reads:

“In the year of Our Lord 2020, on the fourteenth day of the month of August, I, Robert, Bishop of the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, consecrated this altar, in honour of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ and enclosed in it the relics of the holy Martyrs Pope Fabian and Sebastian.

During the final section of the rite of consecration, five incense grains are placed on the centre and points of each of the five engraved crosses that were earlier washed with Gregorian water and anointed with chrism. Specially prepared cross-shaped candles are then placed on top and lit, burning the incense, while the choir sings the prayer to the Holy Spirit. The incense to be used is blessed beforehand using the following prayer:

O Lord God Almighty, before whom the host of Angels stands with trembling, they whose service is known to be spiritual and with fire, deign to look down and bless this creature of incense, that, perceiving its fragrance, all weakness and all infirmities, and the snares of the enemy may flee, and be removed from your image, which you have redeemed with the precious Blood of your Son, that it may never be wounded by the bite of the wicked serpent. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

The final preparation is of the water that is used first in the rite — a special kind of holy water called Gregorian water. Normal holy water consists of salt and water that are both exorcised and blessed before being mixed together. Gregorian water contains ashes and wine as well. These ingredients recall those used by Moses in the consecration of the tabernacle in the wilderness (the wine serves as a substitute for animal blood). The water is named after Pope St Gregory the Great, who ordered it to be used in consecration of churches and altars. The final prayer of the blessing reads:

Almighty, ever-living God, creator and preserver of the human race, giver of spiritual grace, and bestower of eternal salvation, send your Holy Spirit upon this water mixed with wine, salt and ash; that, armed with the power of heaven for our defence, it may bring about the consecration of this altar. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Images and text: Oxford Oratory

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