The altar occupies the central position in the church building and in the liturgical ceremonies. When we walk into God’s house, the prominence of the altar is quite clear. Why is this? It is because the altar represents Christ. The Eucharist is the “summit and source” of our relationship with God. This emphasis is fitting since all things are directed in, with and through Christ. All graces flow from Christ. Thus, it is only fitting that the place, the altar, where all this takes place, should be treated with honor. After God speaks to us in the Scriptures of the Mass, the altar is dressed for the re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection. Whenever possible, the corporal (where the sacred species rests), the chalice, the purificator, and the pall, are placed on the altar. Just as the apostles prepared the upper room, so we prepare the altar to do what Christ commanded us to do at the Last Supper. Wine, water and bread are brought to the altar so that the ritual of the Last Supper can be celebrated and the great mystery made present. Jesus took bread and then the chalice to consecrate, giving us his sacramental presence. When the whole ceremony is finished, the altar is cleared for the closing rites and the dismissal of the people. “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” We are now sent out on mission to carry what we did and received into the world of everyday life. Sometimes the altar is incensed, particularly on special solemn occasions. Incense was the sign of honor reserved for the VIPs of old who could afford servants carrying incense before them as they walked the smelly streets (before sewers were invented). It would later go before processions of the Blessed Sacrament, honoring Jesus Christ. Now it is a mark of honor for the altar and also a sign that our prayers ascend (like smoke) and with pleasing fragrance to God. The people on occasion are also incensed as a sign of their own high dignity at being one with Christ in the Mystical Body. It is also a sign that God is pleased with our prayers which ascend to him. The altar is kissed before and after the Mass, signifying our greeting Christ which the altar represents. The altar can be fashioned in such a way that it resembles a table from whence the food which is Christ comes to us. It can also be shaped like a coffin or tomb to remind us of the death-resurrection of Christ that is made present. Relics of the saints and martyrs are imbedded in the altar, sealed in the altar stone, to remind us that martyrs resemble Christ in laying down their lives and are in a profound union with him. “Greater love than this no man has when he lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When you enter a church, look to the altar and believe what happens there.
Filed under: Awalt Papers