It leaves me speechless, awed, the enormity of the cross.
The plaque at its base, rising 208 feet over the marshes, says that it marks the approximate site where Christianity was first planted in what is now the United States back in 1565.
The historical marker says that back then a small wooden cross was placed in this exact location. The enormous cross that stands before me now was erected in 1966, 400 years afterwards. I read further that it’s build of seventy tons of stainless steel plates and packed with concrete on its lower third to prevent toppling in hurricanes. That would explain how it still stand after Hurricane Matthew swept through here months ago.
Spanish moss hangs low from the oaks and sun filters among the gravestones and I meander the paths slowly and quietly. I run my hand along plaques and touch stones, trying to feel and breathe in the stories here. There is a quiet hush on this coastal marsh and I understand why it is called “America’s most sacred acre.”
I step into the small chapel and breathe in the scent of lit candles, each with a name and a prayer.
The altar inside is simple wood, covered in lace.
I pause, reverent, and peer out the window before I walk under a canopy of oak and cedar trees and make my way toward the rustic altar. The sun filters between gravestones that date back to the 1800s.
I arrive to my favorite spot on this historic land that I’ve visited a handful of times on my trips to St. Augustine, Florida. I read the words on the sign but I don’t need them to know THIS altar is where the first Mass in the United States took place.
Sometimes there is a gate or an altar rail, or a curtain that can be closed at more solemn times at altars, but this one is an open table, the place where the first Christians gathered in the United States. For a moment it seems like it should be grander, a cathedral with fresco paintings.
But no, this is exactly how it should be: simple, wooden, open, elevated.
I want to know how they worshipped at this altar, in a new land. I want to hear the conversations. Because sometimes the history of a place can speak to a soul in quiet whispers of truth.
Dark wood, sky and water mingle in the dappled sunlight and I think of the altars where I’ve stood: in ornate cathedrals with breathtaking views, in the quiet hush where I kneeled during our wedding ceremony all those years ago. And I think of the figurative altars: in a circle of believers with no table between us, taking holy bread and wine.
I remember my grandmother’s hospital room, how that little table raised above her frail body became a place for Eucharist one last time before she went home. How we stood around that room and didn’t need ornate carvings on the wall to know that this was sacred. I also recall at a simple pine table in my aunt’s kitchen in Iowa, where a part of my heart comes alive because it feels like home.
Altars of differing shapes and sizes teach me. Each challenges me and fills me at the same time. I may not see the messes that splay out at the altar rails at my home church, but I know that ragamuffin souls leave carnage there every week and if the blood could be seen then surely it would flow mighty down the aisles.
Because any altar will be a call to sacrifice. The Hebrew definition means “a place of slaughter or sacrifice.”
Stand at the altar and say “I do” and you’ll need to lay down pride and ego and split wide open with grace to survive life with another.
Sit at a table with family and you’ll need to listen more and talk less, forgive seven times seventy and show up when you don’t feel like it.
Approach an altar rail underneath the roof of your hometown and you’ll need to set your heart right up there and ask Jesus to examine it.
Answer a call to ministry and you’ll need to make sure that platform you are standing on is a primitive slab of wood shaped like a cross. You’ll have to nail some things to the cross right alongside Jesus if you’ve been called to serve Him.
Only when you lay something down can you open and receive what is placed on it’s holy surface.
So maybe an altar is anywhere, everyday. Any time we sacrifice, surrender, and open our hands to receive something new: grace, forgiveness, mercy, healing, acceptance.
Maybe what I learned that day, there at that primitive altar, is that every moment can be a consecrated altar, set apart.
A new land in shadow of the cross.