The Theology of the Altar
18th Sunday Ordinary Time
August 5, 2018
“The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Every Roman Catholic Church has an altar. We treat the altar with great respect, for it represents Christ and is that place where the Living Bread comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. If the ambo is where we hear God speak his Word to us, the altar is the place where the Lord becomes physically present among us in the Eucharist in order that we might feed on him, the Bread of Life. The altar is where the one eternal sacrifice of Christ is made present to us in this particular time and place.
Therefore, we always treat the altar with great reverence. We never place unnecessary or inappropriate items on the altar. Whether inside or outside of Mass, only the candles, the Sacramentary and other items needed for Mass (such as Mass intentions or a book stand, for example) are permitted to be placed upon it. Flowers or other decorations placed in front of the altar are not to be higher than the altar so that there is always a clear view.
Did you ever notice that the sanctuary and the people of St. Edward both face east when praying at Mass? Though this is not required now, at one time all Catholic altars were required to face east toward the rising sun and, in fact, many still do. If we had a window behind the altar the sun would pour through it every morning!
The altar before God’s throne in heaven figures very prominently in the book of Revelation, which can only be properly understood in light of the Catholic Mass and the altar of sacrifice at the Jerusalem temple, both of which John would have been familiar with. The word altar comes from the Latin words altare, meaning high, and ara, meaning table.
At one time, every Roman Catholic permanent altar had to be fixed in one position (that is, not movable) and also had to be made of stone. While both of these rules have been relaxed since Vatican II, each permanent altar must contain an altar stone. The altar stone is engraved with five crosses, one for each wound of Christ, and is placed directly under the place where the consecration occurs.
A permanent altar will also contain a first-class relic of a saint. This is because in the early church, Mass was often said over the tomb of the body of a martyr in the catacombs (we have two relics in our new altar: one is Saint Clare and the other probably Saint Edward). Quite a few shrines in Europe have the body of a saint buried under the high altar as a reminder of these times and the connection between those of us alive in this present world and the world of the future, where the saints already live!