On this feast of the Dedication of the Roman Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul, my thoughts turn to the mystery of the altar in Christian worship. It was, in fact, at the dedication of the Vatican Basilica of Saint Peter on November 18, that Pope Saint Sylvester, who reigned from 314 to 335, decreed that, henceforth, altars should be made of stone.
“In this Church did the Pope set up an altar of stone, and pour ointment thereon, and ordain that from henceforth no altars should be set up, save of stone.” (Lesson at Matins of the Dedication of the Basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul at Rome, 18 November)
Altar, Sacrifice, and Priest
“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord” (Gen 8:20). While both Cain and Abel brought offerings to the Lord (Gen 4:3), they did so without presenting them upon an altar. Noah is the first altar-builder of the Bible. After the flood, Noah builds an altar and offers burnt offerings upon it (cf. Gen 8:20). Thus does the mystic triad of altar, offering, and offerer appear in the Bible for the first time. Noah, his altar, and his sacrifice already foreshadow the mystery of Christ sung in the reformed Roman Missal’s magnificent fifth Preface for Paschaltide:
Christ, by the offering of His own Body,
brought to perfection the ancient sacrifices in the truth of the cross
and, in commending Himself to you for our salvation,
showed Himself to be at once the priest, the altar, and the lamb.
Earth Rising Heavenward
After Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all built altars to the Lord. In addition to being the place of sacrifices and libations, the altars built by the patriarchs marked a place of divine intervention. They localized and memorialized the encounter of man with God. Originally a mound of rocks or elevation, the altar symbolizes the earth rising above itself and straining heavenward. It is, at the same time, the place where heaven bends low to touch the earth, to receive man’s offering.
Sacrifice and Holocaust
When, in a sacrificial action, a creature is placed upon an altar, it is made over to God and given up to His hands. Jesus Himself says in Matthew 23:19 that it is, “the altar that makes the offering sacred.” It is by virtue of being placed on the altar that the offering becomes a sacrifice. Saint Augustine (in Book X of The City of God) teaches that whatsoever is placed on the altar becomes sacrificium, a thing made over to God, a thing made sacred. When the same creature is set ablaze in a holocaust, its rising smoke carries the prayer of the offerer into heaven where God takes pleasure in its fragrance.
The altar is the place of a mysterious exchange. The altar of the sacrifice is, at the same time, the sacred table of a mysterious at-one-ment with God. Offerings of food and libations become the food and drink of God; food and drink received from the altar become the means of communion with God.
Bonding in Blood
The altar is also the place of a bonding in blood. Moses takes the blood of sacrifices, pours it upon altar, and throws it over the people (cf. Ex 24:5-8). Altar-blood becomes the blood of a covenant, the blood-bond between God and the people. “And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. . . . And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with these words” (Ex 24:6-8).
God in the Midst of His People
In Exodus, the Lord speaks to Moses amidst thunders, lightnings, thick cloud, and trumpet blast (Ex 20:18), giving instruction on how to build an altar: “An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. And if you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool upon it you profane it” (Ex 20:24-5). Later, the Lord requires a portable “tabernacle of the tent of meeting” (Ex 39:32), a sign that He dwells in the midst of His people even as they journey in the wilderness. At the center of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting stands the altar. The Lord prescribes the form of the altar. “You shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits broad; the altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits” (Ex 27:1).
Toward One Altar
In some way, the history of the Chosen People is a history of altars. The building of multiple altars marks a movement toward the one altar of the the one God that, in the temple of Jerusalem, will be the sign of the one worship offered by God’s one people. The religious life of Israel revolves around the altar. The prophet Ezekiel describes in detail the temple altar and its fittings (cf. Ez 43:13-17). While the Levites will be charged with ordering the service of God in a more general way, the Aaronic priesthood will be centered exclusively on the service of the altar (cf. Nm 3:6-10 and 1 Chr 6:48-49).
The Body of Christ
The one altar of the one temple, in turn, points to Christ. The true and indestructible altar is the Body of Christ Himself, covered with the outpouring of His Precious Blood. True God and true Man, Christ fulfills the mystery signified in every mound of rock and earth straining heavenward to receive the descending glory of God. Christ, being our true Communion Sacrifice, establishes in the blood-bond of His new and everlasting covenant those who drink from the chalice offered in thanksgiving to God at the altar.
Christ the Altar
It is in this sense that the tradition speaks of the altar as Christ. The altar signifies Christ because His Body is the one altar of Christians, the one altar of the Church, the one altar of the cosmos. The altars we build are sacred signs pointing to Christ, the one altar from which ascends the “worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24) that the Father seeks.
Consecration of the Altar
The consecration of the altar is the high point of the rite of the Dedication of a Church. The altar is anointed lavishly with Holy Chrism, making it a sign of Christ, anointed by the Father with the Holy Spirit. Incense is burned in a brazier placed on the altar itself; it is the prayer of Christ and of the Church ascending to the Father in the sweet fragrance of the Holy Spirit. The altar is clothed in holy vesture; more than merely functional or even festive table linens, the altar cloth signifies the splendor of the risen Christ in the midst of the Church. “The Lord has reigned; He is clothed with beauty” (Ps 92:1). The illumination of the altar with candles set about it evokes the gladsome radiance of Christ; all who look to the altar and all who approach it reflect something of the light of Christ. “Look towards Him” says the psalm, “and be radiant” (Ps 33:6). Worked into the base of the altar, beneath the holy table itself, is a miniature sepulchre prepared for the relics of the saints. Thus does the altar signify Christ the Head’s indissoluble union with the members of His Mystical Body.
Overshadowed by the Holy Spirit
The altar is often considered in relation to Christ; less frequently is it seen as the rock from which the Holy Spirit flows to irrigate the Church and make her fruitful. In every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Holy Spirit overshadows the altar, the offerings placed on it, and the people assembled around it. Outside of Mass the altar remains a sign and pledge of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.
A primary source for any theology — and for any spirituality — of the altar is the proper Mass given in the Roman Missal for the Dedication of an Altar. The Preface, in particular, deserves to be studied, repeated, and held in the heart:
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God,
through Christ our Lord.
He is the true priest and He is the victim
who offered Himself to you on the altar of the cross
and commanded us ceaselessly to celebrate
the memorial of that sacrifice.
And so your people have built this altar
which we dedicate to you with surpassing joy.
Here is the true high place
where the sacrifice of Christ is continually offered in mystery;
here perfect praise is given to you;
here our redemption is set forth.
Here is made ready the table of the Lord
where your children are refreshed by the Body of Christ
and gathered into the Church one and holy.
Here your faithful drink deeply of the Spirit
from the streams of water flowing from Christ the spiritual rock;
through Him they themselves become a holy oblation, a living altar.
Therefore, Lord, with all the Angels and Saints,
we praise you, singing in joy.
Veneration of the Altar
We express this rich significance of the altar and impress it upon ourselves by means of certain prescribed gestures. Clergy and laity alike, passing before the altar, venerate it with a profound bow; if the Blessed Sacrament is reserved there, one genuflects. The priest and deacon kiss the altar upon arriving in the sanctuary and before leaving it.
In the traditional rite of Holy Mass the priest kisses the altar frequently; these repeated kisses signify the desire of the priest — representing both Christ the Bridegroom and the whole bridal Body of His Church — for the fruitful consummation of their sacramental union. The suppression of the repeated kissing of the altar in the Novus Ordo is a cold innovation foreign to the language of love in which one or even two kisses are not enough.
The incensation of the altar at Lauds during the Benedictus (Canticle of Zechariah), at Vespers during the Magnificat (Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary), and at several key moments during Mass evokes the mystery of Christ through whom every prayer of ours ascends to the Father and through whom every “grace and heavenly blessing” (Roman Canon) descend to us.
The Heart of Ecclesial Life
The altar at the heart of our churches is, in the deepest sense, the heart of the Church. The Christian life is articulated around the altar in three movements: to the altar, movement of the world into the Kingdom; at the altar, communion of heaven and earth; and from the altar, movement of the Kingdom into the world. “I will come to the altar of God, the God of my joy” (Ps 42:4).