New altar at Notre Dame Cathedral lights up the sacrifice of Christ


Catholic Register, 8 February 2018

OTTAWA – On Feb. 2 in Ottawa’s Notre Dame Cathedral, I knew we would have a special liturgical experience. After all, a new altar for the cathedral was being dedicated, a beautiful rite that only happens once or twice in the life of a church. What I didn’t expect was something utterly and wholly unique.

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord Jesus is celebrated as a feast of light. The aged Simeon welcomes the newborn Jesus — 40 days having passed since Christmas — and proclaims Him not only the glory of Israel but the light for the nations (Gentiles). 

In the temple of Jerusalem, the spiritual and national heart of the Jewish people, it would be remarkable enough to declare the child the “glory of Israel”; the temple was built to house the presence of God, the true glory of Israel. But to declare Jesus the “light of the nations” was bolder still, hearkening back to the original mission of the temple as a “house of prayer for all nations.” 

I thought the dedication of the altar on the Feast of Presentation was apt, because the altar of a Catholic church is the place where the sacrifice of Calvary is made present. The temple of Jerusalem was the place of sacrifices, and so a liturgical feast that pointed to the temple seemed like a fitting occasion to dedicate a new altar.

What took me by surprise was the new altar. In renderings I had seen of it beforehand, it looked like a solid marble block with vertical yellow lines painted on it. It looked, to be honest, a bit odd. It turned out that the altar was not a solid block but hollow inside, and had 12 slits on each side, representing the apostles. The slits allowed you to see, as it were, inside the altar.

What I did not know — and I presume was intended to be a dramatic surprise — was that there are lights under the altar. When they were illuminated during the ritual of “lighting” the altar, it was certainly dramatic. What I thought were yellow lines was actually the light from inside the altar shining forth. The inside of the altar is gold plated, so the light that emerges is warm golden light, an effect not easily captured in photographs. 

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