How Awesome This Place

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In celebrating the centenary of the consecration and dedication to God of the Cathedral of Saints Mary and Joseph, we are in a sense celebrating the 100th anniversary of our cathedral’s “baptism”. At our own baptism we are anointed with sacred chrism and thereby consecrated or set apart for the glory of God and to offer sacrifice to the one true living God. So, too, one hundred years ago today, the magnificent high altar of our cathedral was anointed with chrism and by this anointing was consecrated. From that day forward it has been set apart for the glory of God and for the offering of the perfect sacrifice of praise—the Eucharist—to the one true living God.

It is natural today that we look back to the past, give thanks for the present, and look forward to the future.

The Past: Terribilis est iste locus! How terrible is this place! These were the words chanted in the Latin Gregorian Introit of today’s Mass. In my trusty Latin dictionary, the first definition you will find of terribilis is precisely that: terrible. It does, however, go on to give another meaning—“demanding reverence, venerable…awesome.”

Indeed, how awesome, how venerable is this place! Designed by the architects Sheerin and Hennesy and constructed by Mr. Geoge Nott, when the cathedral opened in 1912, reports spoke glowingly of this great accomplishment for the Catholics of Armidale, NSW, and for their bishop, Patrick Joseph O’Connor.

 

As is so often the case in this vale of tears, just as preparations were being made for its consecration, the world was thrust into the Great War of 1914. Many young souls were lost, including many from this town, and the altar intended for our cathedral, on its way to Australia from Europe, was sunk to the bottom of the ocean.With death and destruction raging, it was no time to celebrate. When, finally, in 1919, the dedication of this fine structure took place, it was as if the entire world had shifted. The supposed “war to end all wars” had ended. For those present there was indeed reason to celebrate and to praise God.

There is something of that same spirit here with us today 100 years later. In some ways our society is still at war—at least with God and Christians at times—but like 100 years ago, we draw strength, courage, and faith from the dedication and commitment of our forebears, who wanted to create an awesome and venerable place in Armidale where God would be worshipped, and seen to be so.

A one-hundred-year anniversary is a magnificent milestone, but the music and the ceremonies associated with today’s Mass are much older, steeped in history. In the sixth century, as the Catholic faith continued to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the famous Roman pagan temple known as the Pantheon—because it was dedicated to all the pagan gods—was consecrated to the worship of the one true God. The Mass setting, which was composed for its consecration as a church by Pope Boniface IV, was none other than the one we have heard and continue to hear through this Mass. Terribilis est iste locus: how awesome is this place!

The ritual of consecration which occurred in this building 100 years ago spoke of its effective baptism, a complete dedication of stone, brick, and wood to the purposes of Almighty God. Three times the bishop went around the outside of the building before coming to the entrance. Then he alone entered with a few sacred ministers and the door was closed behind them. All other clergy and faithful remained outside for a time while the bishop carried out some of the ceremonies within. This curious rubric may signify Christ entering into the world, quietly and secretly, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, at His Incarnation. Some have suggested that it links the Church to Our Lady, who in her virginity and her motherhood is the icon of the Church.

After the bishop entered, the schola chanted “Today, salvation has been brought to this house by God, Alleluia!” which neatly links us to the Gospel reading of today’s Mass. In this Gospel passage chanted by our deacon, we heard the story of Zaccheus, the sinner who desperately wanted to meet Christ but could not see Him for his own small stature. Zaccheus climbs the sychamore tree, and it is there that Our Lord finds him and tells him to come down, for He must come to visit his house, and in so doing brings salvation to his house.

The Present: In the liturgy of consecration—whether 100 years ago or today—the bishop acts in the person of Christ, who came to dwell with sinners and to save them. Indeed, in this place, sinners are welcomed. In this cathedral, Christ comes to every sinner, just as He did to Zaccheus. By Christ’s choosing to dwell in time, God chooses to dwell permanently with sinners, most particularly in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar reserved in the tabernacle. In the confessionals and at the baptismal font, sins are washed away. Marriages, too, are celebrated, as are also ordinations to the priesthood and episcopate. Like Zaccheus, we, too, are filled with joy in knowing that indeed salvation has been brought to this house, and we want to celebrate.

With all our historic reflection we must not overlook that which happens today, and every day, in this wonderful cathedral dedicated to God: the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Catholic Liturgy of the Mass is the re-presentation of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As the Epistle to the Hebrews recalls, when Christ comes into the world as the High Priest—now represented by the bishop—Christ enters as the eternal High Priest “of the greater and more perfect tabernacle” and completes the sacrifices of the law by His own perfect sacrifice.

The Future: So then, what of the future? The wording of the liturgical rites points to that heavenly liturgy which is our final aim and destination. Today’s Epistle reading from the Book of Revelation turns our minds to the glorious future that awaits all of us who are faithful.

And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them. And they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them be their God.

Our Liturgy is supposed to raise our minds out of the commonplace, and to lead us, through beauty and symbol, to contemplate the glory that is our eternal reward. In a world that is sometimes dreary and where circumstances—be they drought, or fire, or simply the ups and downs of life—can give us heavy hearts, our Liturgy is supposed to strengthen us and give us hope as we all turn and look expectantly to Christ, who has come, who still comes, and who will come again.

How awesome is this place?! Yes, but it is nothing compared to that place which has been prepared for us—that heavenly dwelling where God and man will be forever united. In that place, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. And He that sat on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”

This, dear friends, is what our cathedral was intended for: to point our minds towards the past, the present, and the future. It has done this very well for 100 years. Let us pray that, under the loving gaze and patronage of Our Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph, it will continue to do so for another 100 years, or until that time when Christ comes again to make all things new.

Photo credit: Fr. Withoos

Fr. Mark Withoos

By

Fr. Mark Withoos writes from Australia.

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