In St Joseph Church, there is a special feature that you would not find in many places. Above the tabernacle, where many times we place a crucifix, is what is called a rotunda. It is part of the façade of the reredos that changes according to the season. I call it a rotunda because in the reredos, the rotunda spins around to show three different facades: one for ordinary time, one for advent and lent, and another for Christmas and Easter time. So the rotunda adds to the diversity of the reredos to apply to the various times of the year. When we first got this high altar and reredos in 2011, it had many different layers of paint on it. These layers were carefully taken off in order to find out what the original design of the painting was. This is what we attempted to paint on it. There were a few adaptations to it, but for the most part it was done the same way it was originally painted for St Mary’s Church in Dubuque, which is now closed.
The trim work was done in gold to match the gold of the rest of the altar. For the purple or advent/lent season façade, there is a white background with gold and purple decorations. The top dome part has a backdrop of purple in the shape of a spear. This should remind us of the pierced side of Jesus. Below that are the three gothic arch panels. On the top of the left panel is a scroll. This should remind us of the Word made flesh. It speaks more directly to advent season. Directly below that is globe with a cross and rays shining down all in gold. God sanctifies the whole world and makes it holy. This is done by the power of the cross, as is said in the Stations of the Cross, “for by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world.” Below that image is the famous IHS inscription, which is an abbreviation of the Holy name of Jesus as it was transliterated from Greek to Latin.
On the top of the right panel is a crown of thorns. Below that is a dove with a halo and rays shining down. This depicts the Holy Spirit descending down upon Mary at the conception of Jesus in her womb, as is signified by the IHS below the dove. The middle panel depicts the wheat and grapes, which should remind us of the Holy Eucharist and the last supper. It should also remind us of the Shabbat prayers of Passover and at Mass.
The wheat should remind us of so many things of the Old Testament. The Passover is the first place we encounter this bread, when God’s people were freed from slavery to Pharaoh. By the Eucharist we are freed from the slavery to sin and death. The other bread we encounter in the Bible is in the manna. God’s people were fed with the bread of angels so that they could make it to the Promised Land. The Eucharist is our “daily bread” (Mt 6:11), that food for the journey (1 Kings 19:6) to help us get to our promised land, heaven. The grapes bring joy and fruitfulness. It is as sweet and uplifting to the soul as Jesus is to those who are in need. This fruitfulness of the wooden altar is not dead wood. It is very much alive, as we see the one who lives here in the tabernacle is the one who breathes life into this community. It, He, is the wellspring welling up to eternity (Jn 4:13-14). The dead wood of the altar now becomes the tree of life.