The Altar Is Christ; the Altar Is the Church

May 23, 2007

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In its introduction, the Rite for the Dedication of an Altar in the Dedication of a Church and an Altar (1977, English translation 1978) draws on the writings of the early Church to identify the altar as representing both Christ and the Church (Introduction, 1, 2).  "Christ, Head and Teacher, is the true altar," it says; therefore, the members of the Body of Christ and his disciples "are also spiritual altars on which the sacrifice of a holy life is offered to God" (2).  The members of the Church "are the living stones out of which the Lord Jesus builds the Church's altar" (ibid.).  "The Church's writers have seen in the altar a sign of Christ himself.  This is the basis for the saying: 'The altar is Christ'" (4).  Like Christians at their initiation, the altar is dedicated by being anointed with chrism, honored with incense, clothed in white, and illumined with candles (22) -- all symbols of Christ's presence.

What does the altar look like?

Because it represents Christ, the U.S. bishops say in Built of Living Stones ("BOLS") (2000), it "should reflect the nobility, beauty, strength, and simplicity of the One it represents" (BOLS 56).  Because it represents Christ the living stone (1 Peter 2:4), it should be fixed in place, and at least the mensa (table top) should be made of stone (GIRM, 298, 301), though wood may be used (GIRM, 301).  Its placement should make it the "natural focal point of the sanctuary" (BOLS, 57), and it should be "built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people..." (GIRM, 299).

It should look like the place "on which the Sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs [and] the table of the Lord to which the people of God is called together to participate in the Mass, as well as the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist" (GIRM, 296).  In the past, those directions have led architects to design altars that look like tombs and that, in fact, sometimes have contained the bodies of saints.  (And some tombs were then built to resemble altars.)alter-tombs

Although, as Built of Living Stones makes clear, "there is no specified size or shape for an altar" (BOLS, 58), there has been a tendency since the Second Vatican Council to narrow the length and expand the width of altars -- to make them squarer -- in imitation of some ancient altars and the foursquare imagery of the New Jerusalem (see Revelation 21:15-16) and to meet the requirements for an altar today.  As summarized in Built of Living  Stones, those requirements call for an altar that can be walked around; one big enough to accommodate the presence behind it of the priest celebrant, a deacon, and ministering acolytes; and one with enough surface area to hold the Roman Missal and the vessels with bread and wine (see BOLS, 58).  This altar should be visible from all parts of the church during the Liturgy of the Eucharist (BOLS, 59), and therefore, presumably, the action at the altar should not be obscured by crucifix, candles, flowers, or other objects placed on or around the altar.

How should it be treated?

As one diocesan master of ceremonies continually admonishes the bishops in his diocese, who tend to drop their zucchettos on the altar during the Eucharist:  "The altar is not a hat rack!"  Nor is it a place for hymnals, homily notes, flowerpots, or any other paraphernalia beyond what is strictly required for the celebration of the Eucharist (see GIRM, 306).

Even when Mass is not being celebrated, the altar should be treated with due respect, and it should be allowed to "speak" for itself.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal has some wonderful suggestions about how to allow the altar to be itself during the Mass.  There should be "at least one white cloth" on the altar, though other cloths may also be used (GIRM, 304).  Candles and a crucifix should be placed "on or near" the altar (GIRM, 307-308), and ancient models and present experience suggest that "near" is better than "on."  In general, "moderation should be observed in the decoration of an altar" (GIRM, 305).

Perhaps, as we come to understand this symbol of Christ's abiding presence better, and as we find better ways of designing and placing the altar so that it becomes a clearer sign of our union in and around that presence, we will come to see the altar as John Chrysostom described it in his "Second Baptismal Instruction":  "The table, like a fountain, stands in the middle in order that the flock may gather around this fountain on every side and enjoy the benefits of its saving waters."

Dr. Gordon E. Truitt, S.T.D. is the senior editor for publications of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), Washington, D.C.


Pray Be Seated

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