Walk up the aisle toward the sanctuary. The sanctuary is the area in the front of the church, marked off by being slightly elevated and more elaborately decorated. That said, the sanctuary is not off-limits to people who are not clergy; in fact, there are ramps on both sides of the sanctuary to provide access to all peoples.
There are important fixtures in the sanctuary, such as the altar, the ambo, the tabernacle and the cathedra. Notice the connection between these matching pieces as you contemplate their significance in the life of the church.
The altar is the focal point for the assembly gathered for worship at Holy Mass. The altar represents Jesus, the living stone (see 1 Peter 2:4). This idea explains why the priest, at the beginning and end of Holy Mass, reverences the altar with a kiss, as well as why incense is burned around it.
On the altar, during Holy Mass, the sacrifice that Jesus offered once for all on Calvary is mystically made present under the signs of bread and wine. These are the same signs Jesus used at the Last Supper to establish the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist as a memorial of his death and resurrection: “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19).
Participants at Holy Mass are called to gather figuratively speaking around the altar. There they are invited to join their gift of self to that of Christ and offer it to the Father. St. Catherine of Siena taught that the only true gift that people can offer to God is the gift of self, especially that expression of self in the free exercise of the will; everything else God can take or withhold without asking.
The altar is also the table of the Lord, to which his disciples are invited at Holy Communion to be nourished with the spiritual food of the Eucharist: the Body and Blood of Christ that symbolize his life given, poured out, lifted up and laid down for others. On the strength of this food, the recipients go out into the world to extend the sacrifice of Jesus by making an offering of their own lives, sharing Christ’s self-giving love by means of service, self-sacrifice, even suffering with and for others.
On the right side (west) of the sanctuary near the assembly, notice the ambo or lectern, the sacred space dedicated to the reading of Sacred Scripture, to preaching the homily and to announcing the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful. The Liturgy of the Word at Holy Mass prepares the assembly gathered for worship to celebrate the “breaking of the bread” and to bear their share of responsibility for the mission of the church.
The prominent chair in the sanctuary, to the left [east] of the altar, is called the cathedra, which comes from the Greek word for chair or seat. It is the Bishop’s chair; in fact, this church is called the cathedral because it is the place of the Bishop’s cathedra or chair.
As part of the renovation of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the art committee decided to commission a presider’s chair for the cathedral’s rector, or for any other priest who might be celebrating Mass in the bishop’s church, the mother church of the Diocese of Wichita.
The details in the design of the chair reflect the details found in the cathedral: a cross, arches, and circles. The cross at the top of the front of the chair has four squares of bloodwood around it that represent Jesus’ wounds. Freund also crafted the wooden frames for the cathedral’s stations of the cross.
Behind the altar is the tabernacle, the place where the Holy Eucharist is reserved for two purposes: to take Holy Communion to the sick and homebound, and to inspire prayer of adoration. The sanctuary lamp to the left (east) of the tabernacle, when it is lit, indicates that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle.
The tabernacle is framed by a marble reredos. The reredos is original to the cathedral. The reredos itself has some important artwork on it that brings out its purpose of emphasizing the mystery that takes place at the altar.
Notice the shield at the top of the reredos with three letters: IHS. These letters are a Latinized abbreviation of the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek, ΙΗΣΟΥΣ. The letters remind us of the words of St. Paul: “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:8).
Directly below the letters IHS is an ancient Christian symbol for the holy Eucharist: the pious pelican. It is said that a mother pelican, when there is no other food for her chicks, will save them from death by feeding them with her own flesh and blood. This is of course reminiscent of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross that is memorialized in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
Decorating the base of the tabernacle stand are reliefs of the four evangelists which originally decorated the cathedral pulpit.