Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Thoughts about the altar in churches - part 2/2 or 3

"Part 2/2 or 3" is a little wry humor by me :-) Since I write these ad hoc as I think of them, I might finish a thought in part 2 and realize that I haven't covered the topic enough and need to go on to a part 3! Even though these blogs are often serious topics, with a lot of scolding, even then I try to keep them conversational, and thus segment them accordingly. When I've talked myself out (or figured you've heard enough, LOL), and it's not fun anymore, then I do save material for later posts.

I set the foundation for what I wanted to speak about in the first part by citing what is Catholic Church thought, and thus doctrine, about altars. I then provided scripture citation regarding Abraham's building of an altar whenever he and his family, his tribe, relocated.

Whenever one discusses faith history or a sacred subject, one has to go back to the very beginning, in the Bible, and trace the origins and development of that topic such as, in this case, altars. Why? First, let me accuse the modern people of having a "let's do the minimum amount that we need to do" attitude, which is misleading. For example, many children try to get away with the least amount of homework and study possible, ("just enough to get by"), or the least amount of practice possible, even when it is something that they love, such as music or sports. Unfortunately, it is the same regarding God. Too many ministers-and their flocks-want to just flip the Bible open and "see what Paul says we have to do about altars." Who cares what Abraham did, right? Um, deny that if you dare, but you know that I am correct. Rather than plumbing the depths, of loving God so much that you want to know all there is about him, and to please him and serve his will, too many of you just hope that Paul "tells you" the bare minimum that you "must" do. But is that really enough? And does it supersede what Jesus himself said and did?

You must bare open to yourselves your own heart and motivations, since, after all, God knows them all already, even before you have them, and he knows them all far more than you ever will (since God knows what is hidden, both conscious and unconscious). Are you motivated to love and to serve God, to be sanctified, and thus you do not have to worry about a "salvation checklist?" No where in scripture does Jesus say that one should not seek to better love, know and serve God, since he, Jesus, is "enough." In other words, Jesus does not put up a barrier and say that you no longer need to read scripture (in fact, Jesus often quotes scripture from those "old" times) nor that you must understand God's will.

For example, when Jesus is asked about what to do to be saved, Jesus mentions the Commandments. It goes without saying that Jesus assumes that his followers would not only know the Commandments, but they would also read all the associated scripture! By reading the scripture you enrich and make more accurate your understanding of the fullness of God's relationship with you individually and his church collectively.

This is why I am very keen to have people think most seriously about God's expectations and God's attitude toward the most solemn sign of his presence on earth, which is his altar.

Again, I am anticipating a modern problem that I encounter all the time, particularly among many Protestant denominations and nondenominational churches. Many try to cut this line of thought off at the very beginning, with the somewhat snooty and snotty observation that altars are not "needed" because "don't you know that God is everywhere?" Um, duh, yeah, I kind of know that God is everywhere (which is why I constantly have to remind all of you that when we say God is all knowing we mean he is all knowing, including what you think, have thought and will think in the future). Obviously God is everywhere. That is not the point of an altar, to have a superstitious belief that God is "only" there. Do you not realize that God was "everywhere" during the time of Abraham too? Abraham built altars not to "bring God along."

You want to think most seriously about altars and what they mean to GOD, and not what they mean to you.

An altar is where God has made a commitment to his people to be present. For example, think of the room in your home where you receive guests, such as your living room or a reception room. An altar is the place where God, who is of course present in that room and any and every room, has committed himself to being seated, even though you cannot see him. God knows that you cannot see him, and God knows that you know he is everywhere, though you often forget that he is, of course. God therefore has from the very beginning, since his relationship with Adam and Eve and onward, committed to be present at the place of the altar, even though he cannot be seen.

How do we know this goes so far back in time, even to Adam and Eve?

Genesis 4:3-5
In the course of time Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil, while Abel, for his part, brought one of the best firstlings of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not. Cain greatly resented this and was crestfallen.

Most with fundamental knowledge of their faith know that the first children of Adam and Eve were Cain and Abel, and that Cain committed the first murder, killing his brother because he envied that the Lord God approved of Abel's offering more than Cain's.

Now, where exactly do you think these offerings would have been made, since they had been banished from the Garden of Eden, which is where God used to walk with their parents, Adam and Eve? These offerings would have been made on an altar to God.

I have to remind people who worry when we "assume" and "put things into the Bible that are not written there" that THEY need to better know their scripture, not I. Who wrote the first five books of the Bible? Moses. Where were offerings made to God during the time of Moses. On altars. Moses would not have to state that these offerings were made on altars "just to get it formally in writing in the scripture" because it never would have occurred to him otherwise.

Here is a modern example. "Sally left the house and drove to John's place." Oh no! We cannot understand the meaning of that phrase, because the author did not say that Sally drove "in a car!" I mean, in old English to "drove" also means to herd cattle. Might not the author have meant that Sally left the house and herded some cattle over to John's place? LOL. Do you see what I mean that far from "putting something into the Bible that isn't there," genuine lovers and scholars of the Bible always recall the context in which it is written, and they trust the divinely inspired authors to place what is need within. One does not stop using one's brain and power of deduction when one reads the Bible.

So we know for a fact that immediately after the fall of man through Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the garden that at least one altar was built and offerings made to the Lord by their children Cain and Abel.

Cain was a farmer and Abel was a herdsman (Genesis 4:2). Thus Cain brought "an offering" "from the fruit of the soil while Abel" "brought one of his best firstlings of his flock." This means that Cain brought average produce from what he farmed while Abel brought one of the best of the first born animals. So Cain basically sampled out of what he was growing anyway some to offer to the Lord, while Abel selected one of his very best to give up to the Lord.

Think again of that guest arriving in your living room or reception room. Cain would have the guest sit in any of the regular chairs that were available in the conference room, for example. Abel would have brought into the room the best chair for the guest, taking it from himself if that was the one that he usually sat in. Now, I'm mixing into one image with this analogy both the altar itself and the offerings placed upon it, but there is a reason I am doing so, so just bear with me and don't split hairs over it ;-)

The next mention of an altar is when God sent the flood to destroy the wickedness of man, saving only Noah, who had built an ark according to God's instruction. After the earth had dried and it was safe to emerge:

Genesis 8:20-21
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and choosing from every clean animal and every clean bird, he offered holocausts on the altar. When the Lord smelled the sweet odor, he said to himself: "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the desires of man's heart are evil from the start; nor will I ever strike down all living beings, as I have done."

By the way, how do we know what God was thinking, since he did not speak aloud that thought? Again, because he told Moses, who is the author of Genesis and the four books of the Bible that follow.

So when Noah leaves the ark he promptly builds an altar and offers up sacrifice, even though he knows, I mean, duh, that God is "everywhere," since God spoke to him and helped him build the ark all along.

The altar is the place where humans have a committed meeting with God. It has been so from the very beginning and it pleases God. It also provides a stability of relationship and perspective between human beings and God. It is like the difference between knowing that your human visitor is alive, is planning to come, knows what you are doing, and perhaps is even texting you or speaking to you on the phone, and the guest actually being in the room and being handed a chair by you. Just because your guest "exists" does not mean it is not important to give him or her respect, full attention, and a place to sit when they are in your actual presence. The earliest of faith forefathers, starting obviously with Cain and Abel, understood that, and were not prompted by God to do so (otherwise that would be in the scripture). Humans as much as God desired that altars be built to define and formalize the committed presence of God in that place.

We next read about altars as they are built by Abraham, as I have already cited previously.

So that is what I think about whenever I enter a church. I immediately look for the altar. Now, can you imagine my reaction and why I have that when I do not see an altar at all? I do not care if one calls it an altar or the "Lord's table" (referring to Jesus Christ at the Last Supper). I do not understand how one feels "at home with God" in a church that does not have either an altar or the Lord's table. Next, imagine how I feel when there is something but it is either very lame or it is used for glorification the congregation, like a microphone stand or something. Yikes, can you repeat after me "Um, that's missing the whole point of an altar!"

Of course God is "everywhere." Believe you me, Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah and Abraham sure know that more than you today know and believe that! The altar is the place of committed meeting between God and the faithful. Jesus Christ, far from removing it, confirmed that and, further, placed himself on the altar on behalf of all humans. The altar in the church (non Catholic) where I frequently attend services (as a visitor and faith family member, like an "in-law" LOL) has a simple altar but with the words in gold "Do this in remembrance of me." Now, there is much that I wish they would do differently about the altar as the presence of God in that church, but I am not going to critique those who at least have a worthy altar in their church.

I think I will wrap part 2 here because, as I thought in the beginning, a part 3 where we look at what Jesus said and did in this context is really needed. But even if I wrapped up my thoughts here, which is the whole point, I think I leave you in a good place to better understand that the altar is not "just" the "old fashioned place" where the "Jews burned offerings" and "we don't need to do that kind of thing." That's forgetting that the altar became the committed meeting place of God and humans after humans had gone and lost the Garden of Eden for everyone, where God had walked in person among Adam and Eve and the animals (thanks a lot, hmm?) Scripture shows that God did not order the building of altars nor specify the sacrifices until the time of the formation of the Israelites as they left Egypt under Moses. Altars were built immediately by humans as soon as they had lost, through the sin of Adam and Eve, their day to day contact with the Lord God. There they had committed encounter with the Lord, and there they made offering to him.

I hope that you have found this helpful and has given you a deeper perspective about not only a very important and sacred topic, altars, but also better understanding God's ongoing relationship with his faithful, in all its forms and depths.