By Dr. Judy Bullock
Is the altar in Catholic churches an “altar of sacrifice” or is it the “table of the Eucharist?” According to church teaching, it is actually both.
In every Catholic church, the altar is located in a prominent, central place in the sanctuary. This placement makes it a natural focal point. The gestures of reverence directed to the altar indicate the honor with which it is held. The priest and assisting deacon, not only make a profound bow to the altar when they approach it in the entrance procession and once again before leaving the worship space, but they also kiss the altar as a sign of this esteem. All of us are instructed to make a deep bow when we pass in front of the altar or approach it head-on, except when we are in procession.
Not unlike other multivalent symbols, the altar carries rich imagery. Some descriptions of the altar focus on what takes place there, such as the eucharistic sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood and the paschal banquet; an offering and a commemorative meal.
Altar of sacrifice
Historically, the origin of a sacrificial altar appears in many of the Books of the Old Testament. First fruits of the harvest are offered or burned on an altar in thanksgiving to God for a plentiful harvest.
Animal sacrifices were also offered to God by a grateful people, prompting a feasting season. These types of oblations were also offered in reparation for wrong doing or for atonement.
With the birth of Christianity, Jesus’ death on the cross was understood as the ultimate sacrificial offering. Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God.
The development of the liturgy in later years embraced the sacrificial elements of the paschal meal by celebrating over the tombs of the Christian martyrs. Although no longer the practice, for many centuries capturing this same practice, the relics of saints were placed in the mensa or table top of the altar.
The altar is Christ
With the increased use of stone in the construction of altars, the altar was seen as representing Christ, the cornerstone and foundation of the church. Continuing with this concept, it is on the altar of Christ that we place ourselves, giving over to the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal reminds us that the people “should give thanks to God; by offering the immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn to offer themselves as well…” During the Mass, before beginning the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest says, “Pray brothers and sisters that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.”
Table of the lord
In the early years, Christians met in homes and the commemorative meal was held around the family dining table. The altar has been described as the “table around which Christ gathers the community to nourish them.” The accounts of the Last Supper provide us with the strongest connection to the concept of meal and the “table of the lord.” With his apostles gathered around him at table, he asked them to take and eat, take and drink his body and blood. “Do this in remembrance of me” is our mandate.
The General Instruction says that the people “should be instructed by God’s word and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body.” It is at this table of the lord that we are fed, transformed and united as one in the body and blood of Christ. It is at this altar, this table, that we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.