The Altar of Africa

By Fr. Desmond Murray, O.P.

Altar of Africa at the Cathedral of Christ the King

The Altar of Africa

It is only the eyes of those who have deep and vivid faith who can read signs in the firmament or on the face of the earth.

Indeed, it was the Portuguese and Spaniards with their deep Catholic faith and traditions who gave sacred names to countries, ports, bays, islands and towns at which their ships touched. The world is strewn with such beautiful names: San Salvador, S. Crux, Ascension, S. Maria, Rosario, San Pedro, S. Paulo, S. Domingo, S. Ignacio and the rest, a whole calendar of saints’ names can be found in any good geographical index. These men did not paint the map red, they touched it with more precious colours, they left relic-names that have come down to us from the ages of faith to the present age of infidelity.

When these wonderful sea travellers eventually reached the Cape they saw before them, from the helms of their ships, so tradition says, not only the great mountain we see to-day, not merely a flat table top of stone, but a mighty stone altar-the altar of Africa. Across it was stretched a dazzling white altar-cloth of cloud. Like luminous candles the fading stars hung in the sky and the jewelled cross above. Down the sides of the altar ran silver streams of water, darkened to the colour of blood by the quartz or sandstone rock over which they flowed; precious streams as the saving blood of Christ. The dawn, radiantly holy, lit up the great altar table of rock with flames of sacrifice. The clear blue sky above might have been Mary’s robe, as she adored before so fitting an altar, the sun arose to give more light to the glassy waters of the bay, slate-grey in colour, like the breast of a dove.

Then appeared the masses of verdure on the lower slopes of the mountain. In the clear crystal air one could pick out the tree tops where the falling waters seemed to disappear into the depths below. Birds of many rich colours passed swiftly to and fro; delicate insects of every shape and form filled the sunbeams, where aromatic scents of flowers pervaded the air. All this made, and still makes, a perfect setting for so sacred a place-the Altar of Africa.