Continuing our armchair pilgrimage to Wales: this altar stone is a treasure of Saint David’s Cathedral. Traditionally, Catholics have had, at the centre of altars, a stone containing relics of martyrs. This one, we are told by tradition, was a portable altar stone that could be used to celebrate the Eucharist outdoors or in a private dwelling.
The stone was given to David in Jerusalem. He brought it home to Wales and carried it on his travels around his diocese of Menevia. It is generally known as the Sapphire Stone.
This is a relic on many levels! It is a relic of Saint David himself, a reminder of his devotion to bringing the Eucharist to his flock: the source and summit of the Church’s life. It links the cathedral and visitors to David, founder of the cathedral, patron of Wales. And it links us, through David, to the pre-Islamic Holy Land, to the Apostles and to their Lord and ours.
Whatever your thoughts or feelings about altars or altar stones – and this one must have been well hidden in Reformation times to have survived – the emotional and spiritual resonances of this rather non-descript stone cannot be denied.
Today we’d put out the flags, as Caernarfon did to welcome us (and thousands more tourists) a few years ago. 2,000 years ago it was palms and cloaks that were actively waved – not just left out in all weathers – as Jesus came to town. But by the following Friday nobody would have wanted the Romans to see the national flags and emblems on their buildings. Jesus had become dangerous to know.
The Plantagenet Kings whose castle commands this view would have looked askance at the scene, and their spies would have filled the castle governor’s ear with more or less factual accounts of the latest prince to arise to rally the Welsh. Pilate would have heard about Jesus before Palm Sunday but the parade of the King of the Jews did not lead to his immediate arrest. Pilate thought he could contain this uprising before it got very far.
By Friday festival fever was worrying a hypersensitive elite who valued the shaky Pax Romana as it applied in Judea, offering them status and privilege and allowing the Temple worship to continue according to the Law. Verses from the Psalms and the Prophets that challenged the idea of sacrifice were dismissed in their turn by the priests of the Temple.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Ps 51: 16-17
Jesus’s heart was broken, his body too, though not his spirit. His death completed his lifelong passion. It is all of a piece, as the Pieta tells us – the baby we saw Mary cuddling at Christmas is the One she cradles briefly before his burial. (Take a look at St Thomas’s Lady altar.) But today, knowing he is riding into difficult times, he is the King the crowd were waiting for.
So let’s put out the flags in our hearts, and wave our palms for our King!
While Jesus was in the Desert, the devil took him to the top of the Temple. I feel somewhat safer in the crypt of the Cathedral: there’s not so far to fall!
And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and he said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself from hence. For it is written, that He hath given his angels charge over thee, that they keep thee.For it is written, that He hath given his angels charge over thee, that they keep thee. And that in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone.
And Jesus answering, said to him: It is said: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
I do seem to be dashing my feet against stones quite a lot these days; is that my lack of observation or the lack of footpath maintenance, or perhaps both? Anyway, the Crypt is my go-to desert place in the city. But there are other spots where the desert awaits; even passing through the old orchard grounds for instance, or seeing the hazel catkins in full bloom in various odd spots.
Forty seconds, not forty days, I spend enjoying them, but the resilience of those soft, dangling catkins in this year’s high winds has been an object lesson to me.