Sunday, August 16, 2009

Thoughts about the altar in churches - part 1/2

I want to write a reflection about what an altar in a church means to me. I'm determined, however, not to stay up late tonight blogging! So I will write this in two parts, saving my reflection and some scripture references for the second part, and for context and background, copy here four paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church about altars.

1181 A church, "a house of prayer in which the Eucharist is celebrated and reserved, where the faithful assemble, and where is worshipped the presence of the Son of God our Savior, offered for us on the sacrificial altar for the help and consolation of the faithful-this house ought to be in good taste and a worthy place for prayer and sacred ceremonial." In this "house of God" the truth and the harmony of the signs that make it up should show Christ to be present and active in this place.

1182 The altar of the New Covenant is the Lord's Cross, from which the sacraments of the Paschal mystery flow. On the altar, which is the center of the church, the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs. The altar is also the table of the Lord, to which the People of God are invited. In certain Eastern liturgies, the altar is also the symbol of the tomb (Christ truly died and is truly risen).

1383 The altar, around which the Church is gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist, represents the two aspects of the same mystery: the altar of the sacrifice and the table of the Lord. This is all the more so since the Christian altar is the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful, both as the victim offered for our reconciliation and as food from heaven who is giving himself to us. "For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the Body of Christ?" asks St. Ambrose. He says elsewhere, "The altar represents the body [of Christ] and the Body of Christ is on the altar." The liturgy expresses this unity of sacrifice and communion in many prayers. Thus the Roman Church prays in its anaphora:

We entreat you, almighty God,
that by the hands of your holy Angel
this offering may be borne to your altar in heaven
in the sight of your divine majesty,
so that as we receive in communion at this altar
the most holy Body and Blood of your Son,
we may be filled with every heavenly blessing and grace.

2570 When God calls him, Abraham goes forth "as the Lord told him"; Abraham's heart is entirely submissive to the Word and so he obeys. Such attentiveness of the heart, whose decisions are made according to God's will, is essential to prayer, while the words used count only in relation to it. Abraham's prayer is expressed first by deeds: a man of silence, he constructs an altar to the Lord at each stage of his journey. Only later does Abraham's first prayer in words appear: a veiled complaint reminding God of his promises which seem unfulfilled. Thus one aspect of the drama of prayer appears from the beginning: the test of faith in the fidelity of God.


Just to reassure you of the scriptural basis, here are the references for the statement that Abraham built altars.

Genesis 12:7-9
The Lord appeared to Abram and said, "To your descendants I will give this land." So Abram build an altar there to the Lord who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country east of Bethel, pitching his tent with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. He build an altar there to the Lord and invoked the Lord by name. Then Abram journeyed on by stages to the Negeb.

Genesis 13:18
Abram moved his tents and went on to settle near the terebinth of Mamre, which is at Hebron. There he built an altar to the Lord.

Here is an interesting aside. Abraham made a peace pact with Abimelech, king of Gerar (these were Philistines). You can read the reasons why they came to respect Abraham's God and to make peace in Genesis 20-21. The place where they made their peace pact was Beer-sheba. Read what Abraham did to mark that place.

Genesis 21:33-4
Abraham planted a tamarisk at Beer-sheba, and there he invoked by name the Lord, God the Eternal. Abraham resided in the land of the Philistines for many years.

A tamarisk is a tree.

This is an example where careful readers can discern information about what is appropriate in the worship of God, and what is not, not only by what is stated, but also observing the role modeling of the Patriarchs and the Prophets. Abraham demonstrated faith to God by building altars and invoking God's name as Abraham traveled and relocated. Abraham also showed that one can commemorate a profound occasion (such as the pact with the Philistines) through a mundane object (such as planting a tree) and the invocation of God's name to bless the event. This is much as we do today, when we build a building, plant a garden, erect a plaque or some other commemorative device, and then bless it with the name of God.

Another comment and then I will wait until writing part two for my commentary about altars. Just to further mutual Christian and Muslim understanding, this is for Christians. The Muslims understand that Abraham created altars and other commemorative locations throughout the region, and one of the early endeavors by the Muslim people was to determine which of those locations still existed in their place and could be identified as such. This is the origin of some of the locations that Muslims consider very holy.