What is that? That …that …enormous …thing over the altar, filled with lights and colored glass, holding up the suspended crucifix. That, my friends, is a baldachin. That’s the first thing you have to explain to a first-time visitor to our humble parish church. It is also known as a baldacchino, from the Italian; or ciborium, from the Latin. That latter is the same word we use for the vessel that holds the consecrated hosts; the common element being the lid, or cover.
Some call it a “canopy,” and that is no bad guess, although that invokes a tent or some other cover made of cloth. The most famous baldachin in the world – the one designed by Bernini that stands above the Papal altar in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican – fashions bronze to look like fabric, silk flaps swaying gently in the breeze, with tassels hanging from the tips.
Aside from simply designating the altar area as the most important in the church, which it is; and beyond drawing eyes and attention to what happens beneath it, which it does, the baldachin does in fact refer directly and unambiguously to another canopy.
In many pre-modern and pre-urban societies, not only was the wedding itself a social event celebrated by the entire population of the village or town, but that celebration and that involvement continued up to and including the fulfillment of the marriage promises. So, just as before the wedding, the preparation of the bride and the groom was a communal effort, so after the wedding, the banquet (a much stronger – and longer! – event than a mere reception) and beyond. For there was also prepared a nuptial chamber, to which the couple, after sufficient partying had been enjoyed, would be led. Inside was prepared the wedding bed, decorated and designated by the best of everything available and over it, a canopy. Under that canopy would be sealed and consummated the nuptial union that the couple had promised one another in the marriage ceremony.
In the lectionary for weekday Mass, we just began reading Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. In its fifth chapter, Paul reflects that the sacrifices husbands and wives offer one another are in fact a great mystery, a sacramentum, both manifesting and making present the very relationship between Christ Jesus and His spouse, the Church: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church. (Ep 5:31-32)
Nobody who knows and understands the faith of the Church would confuse believing Catholics with prudes or puritans. How could that be possible when our most sacred space is centered on a direct reference to the marital act? For our faith does not lead us away from the flesh; on the contrary, it leads us to the life-giving flesh of our Lord.
Just last week we switched our bulletin cover to the photo of this most distinctive feature of our church. The baldachin is at the center of our church, because the Eucharistic feast is the center of our life-giving communion in the Body of Christ, and because marriage is the center of the communion in the flesh between man and wife that brings life into the world, and into the communion with God in Christ. So that is what that is.