Much of the blame may be placed on misunderstandings about the significance of the home altar in Hispanic culture. These misunderstandings have become critical in the wake of Vatican II's authoritative reflection on the meaning of church. To many professional theologians the home altar contradicts the communal emphasis on worship found in Vatican II's Lumen gentium (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church).
The history of the home altar lies unwritten, but it certainly may be traced to the early days of the martyrs in the church. A martyr's death provided many of the faithful with their first home altar. Early Christians constructed their home altars from bits of clothing, hair, flesh, or even bone from a martyr's corpse. Such home altars were more than places of worship; they signified bold faith in front of insuperable odds. Until Vatican II, canon law required a saint's relic for a proper altar.
My family's home altar in Cuba did not contain a saint's relic, but it was no less a sign of bold faith. It stood next to the front door of our home, a simple table draped with elegant Spanish lace. A beautiful retablo--a tile mosaic hanging on the wall depicting the Virgin Mary--framed this simple altar. My mother would adorn the altar daily with fresh, scarlet roses. A silver candelabra would greet the new arrivals, the dusty white of its candles contrasting with the scarlet of the roses. I remember fondly our family gathering around the altar, praying the rosary, or singing villancicos (Christmas songs).
I remember praying around this altar at other times, times of fear and struggle, a revolution at our front doors. Depicted in the retablo behind the altar, the Virgin of Covadonga--the patroness of the province of Asturias in Spain, my grandparent's birthplace--proudly stood and gave us comfort. Devotion to Mary of Covadonga played an important role in Catholic Spain's resistance to Muslim rule during the Middle Ages.
Lumen gentium contains a mysterious but intriguing phrase--the "domestic" church. The domestic church is the parent in a family who "by word and example, are the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children." The Spanish custom of the home altar was, I maintain, the pre-Vatican II equivalent of the domestic church. Around it, my parents and grandparents taught me to pray and to see the sacred, even in the everyday world of the home.
Such days seem nostalgic for the reality today is a terrific onslaught against the land of the family, the domestic space by which family is created and nurtured, an onslaught not unlike the one experienced by Christians in Muslim Spain. The home altar is not so much making worship private but a sign of bold faith amidst ferocious struggle, a struggle for the domestic church.
The modern home altar is still possible, and it need not look like my mother's altar. It could be a candle and flowers at the center of the dining-room table, the candle lit just before saying grace and extinguished after the meal is over. In between, however, the liturgy chanted would consist of the various reports of the day by different members of the family, the cares (and joys) of the day being shared. Conflict would be faced but not without context, a sacred space mediating the dynamics of familial friction. As such, this home altar echoes the liturgy of the sacred meal heard at Mass, the domestic church, truly at home.
The Hispanic Catholic home altar is truly a custom for all Catholic families today. The signs of the times are that a ferocious struggle for the Catholic family is taking place. The home altar ought to mark the battlefront of that struggle as sign of bold faith. The domestic church brings faith, hope, and charity to those who must fight at the battlefront of our day--the mothers, fathers, and, especially, children of the Catholic family.
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|Title Annotation:||the domestic church under siege|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1994|
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