"Truly beautified" - Bishop Hudson's homily for a new altar
The homily of Bishop Nicholas Hudson on the occasion of the dedication of the new altar at Farm St Church.
“How lovely is your dwelling place!” How lovely is Farm Street! That’s something I often find myself telling people. “It’s a church which has been truly beautified,” I tell them, “beautified in a way which draws people to contemplate the mystery which is at its heart.” And right at its heart is, of course, the altar which we dedicate with joy tonight. Already the eyes of passers-by must have been drawn by the light and colour of the whole church glimpsed through glass doors the introduction of which was surely inspired.
How much more will the man and woman in the street now be drawn by the beautiful altar which is at its heart, drawn to enter, to savour, to encounter.
In the week when we commemorate Cardinal Hume’s 20th anniversary, I find myself recalling words he chose for the dedication of another church, a cathedral. Anticipating the celebration, he described how he couldn’t resist just looking, feasting his eyes on the soon-to-be-dedicated building; and how it occurred to him as he did so that, “The eyes, like the ears, are windows that admit shafts from the glory of God leading us to delight and wonder at the beauty which God is.” “The eyes, like the ears, are windows that admit shafts from the glory of God leading us to delight and wonder at the beauty which God is.” “To delight and wonder at the beauty which God is”: that describes surely what we hope will be the effect on all who contemplate the splendour of this new altar here in Farm Street.
To contemplate not only the splendour but all that it signifies and represents - how it re-presents, as is so beautifully captured in the Prayer of Dedication which we shall shortly hear:
• the way Noah, once the waters fell and the mountains peaked again, built an altar in God’s name;
• the way Abraham constructed an altar on which to slay his son, only for God to stay his hand;
• the way Moses built an altar on which was cast the blood of a lamb so as to prefigure the altar of the cross;
and how all of this Christ fulfilled as he mounted the tree of the cross and gave himself to God thereby sealing the New Covenant and in his blood engulfing sin.
Many of us are visitors come to be with you this night. For all of you who worship here regularly , I hope that all the allusions, prayers, supplications, symbols and images of this celebration will continue to resonate within you as you return faithfully, many of you daily, to this place - “ever toward this place” as many of us have prayed in that beautiful prayer set to music by Tallis: Hear the voice and prayer. It is a great prayer and one to savour: “Hear the voice and prayer of thy servants that thine eyes may be open toward this house day and night, ever toward this place of which thou hast said, ‘My name shall be there’; and when thou hearst have mercy on them.”
‘My name shall be there’. It makes me wish to say the name of Jesus is most certainly upon this place as it is in every Jesuit church: IHS, the first three letters of Jesus’s holy name; and Jesus’s eyes day and night looking upon that which is at its heart - the mercy-seat which is its altar. I’m sure that as you, the parishioners, look towards this place you feel a love in your hearts for its very stones. When we love a church to that degree, then we should remember the plea of St Peter that we strive then to be stones, living stones, ourselves. That the stones of this place are here not just to adorn: this we know. They’re here rather to remind us that the communion experienced within these walls is for a mission beyond these walls.
We gather faithfully around this stone altar not simply to celebrate our communion with Christ but to receive the food we need to become living stones which announce Christ beyond the confines of this place. We consecrate bread and wine in order that the world might be consecrated to Christ and that we might consecrate the world to him. Yes, we are a temple people but only so that we might become living temples ourselves, people whose lives announce us self-evidently to be temples of the Holy Spirit; and who show, by the way we live, that we recognise Christ in others, and most especially the poor.
I find eloquent expression of this in the juxtaposition of sumptuous altar and ‘Homeless Jesus’. Not a jarring juxtaposition but rather a lyrical one. A juxtaposition which recalls for us the words - familiar words - of St John Chrysostom which both edify and challenge every time we hear them, when Chrystostom asks:
“Do you seek to honour the Body of Christ? Then do not despise him when he is naked. Do not honour him here in the church building with silks, only to neglect him outside, when he is suffering from cold and from nakedness. Feed the hungry and then come and decorate the table.”
The juxtaposition here in this place of fine altar and sculpture of the wretched homeless one is, in fact, a statement and commitment not to neglect but rather seek food for action. That communion is for mission.
This commitment to mission is indeed dramatically stated and sealed by the sealing of a martyr’s relic - a relic of the 3rd-century martyr, St Tranquillinus - in the very heart of the altar. The alignment of martyrdom, nay a martyr’s bodily presence within the altar, to the sacrifice which we offer on the altar, announces eloquently that communion is for mission. Through this bodily presence of one martyr, we are surely united to the whole host of Martyrs who, even as we sit here, are gathered around God’s altar in heaven singing the praises of the Lamb for whom they sacrificed their lives in witness.
And that list includes many from this household, from the Jesuit household of faith. On this day that we dedicate a new altar just yards from Tyburn, it’s good to unite ourselves to all those Jesuit priests who made the supreme sacrifice there on Tyburn Tree; and ask that they unite themselves to the Eucharistic sacrifice every time we offer it on this altar: Campion, Southwell, Whitbread, Harcourt, Fenwick, Turner and Gavan.
Thankfully Campion’s final utterance on the scaffold at Tyburn has been recorded for posterity. I find I often unite myself to him and to that final utterance as I am raising the chalice of salvation above the altar of sacrifice: “Jesus, Jesus, be to me a Jesus.” Those were his final words before they tightened the noose around his neck. You might like to make those words your own every time you approach the newly dedicated altar to receive the food, that heavenly food which clearly sustained Campion to the end: “Jesus, Jesus, be to me a Jesus.” Because dedicating an altar is about nothing if not about letting Jesus be a Jesus to us, setting ourselves close to him, as St Peter urges, as close to him as we possibly can. And why? Well, as Peter says: so that, with the Lord’s help, we too may become living stones serving to build up the Body of Christ.