"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012
The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch
Saturday, 7 February 2009
Of course, the real altar, the altar that has value in tself, is Christ himself. As usual, St Augustine puts the argument very succinctly, beginning with a quotation from Matthew 23, 17, “The Lord says to the Jews, ‘What is more important, the offering or the altar which sanctifies the offering?’ For the temple and the altar we must understand the Christ himself; for the gold and the offerings, the praises and sacrifices of prayers which we offer through him. It is not the offerings which sanctify Christ, but rather Christ who sanctifies the offerings.” (PL 35, 1329) Christ is the only offering completely worthy of the Father, the only altar capable of sanctifying anything or anybody, and the only temple in which God dwells bodily. The incredible thing is that in the Mass we are doing something that no creature, not even the angels, can do by their own nature: because of the synergy between the Holy Spirit and the Church,: the glory which we give to God is nothing less than the glory that God is giving to God: we are sharing in the life of the Trinity, but always by entering into the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, and anticipating the Parousia or Second Coming. Nevertheless, the liturgical instrument we call the "altar" has a value that is related to its use by the Church, and a holiness we are inclined to forget,
If you enter a modern church like Worth Abbey, Clifton Cathedral or Leyland Parish Church, you will be struck by the central position of the altar and how the eyes of those who enter are automatically drawn towards it. However, there is no real sanctuary as in the more traditional layout. What is called a sanctuary is really a stage. The Eucharist is the centre of Church, so the altar is placed at the centre of the assembly. In words taken from the rite of the Consecration of an Altar, we are “gathered round His altar in love”. The altar is prominent because it is the holiest place in the church, indeed, as an Orthodox writer put it, "(It) is the holiest place that can be found on earth. The Majesty of God descends upon the Altar, when the Bloodless Sacrifice of Christ is performed on it.” Another Orthodox writer says:
"The central and most important part of the Church, which is the Holy Altar, is blessed and sanctified by the ritual of the Consecration. According to Nikolaos Cabasilas: “the purpose of the Holy Mysteries is this: to prepare us for the true life…the altar is the starting point for every rite, whether it be to communicate or to receive Chrism, as well as to administer Holy Orders and the perfections of Baptism…(the altar is) the foundation or root of the Sacraments…”
Symeon of Thessalonica emphasizes the same point:
Just as a bishop or priest is needed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, and a bishop to celebrate Holy Orders and the Sacrament of Chrism, in like manner these rites have need of an altar for the altar is the church; for it is on the altar that the Liturgy and Holy Orders and the Chrism take place… Through the altar the church is made holy; for without an altar there can be no church, but only a House of Prayer… it is not the Tabernacle of God’s glory, nor His dwelling place…nor can the divine gifts be offered on its Table… (Announcing the Consecration of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church Stamford, Connecticut Sunday November 2, 2008)
In the Byzantine Rite the whole sanctuary behind the ikonostasis can be called the “altar” and is considered an extension of it, and the altar itself is also called “holy table” and “throne”, and its meaning cannot be understood without reference to the Old Testament. The word “sacrifice” in Hebrew comes from a verb that means “to approach”. Sacrifice was a combined offering by human beings and acceptance by God. It was the context in which God’s Presence among men was accomplished and continued. This was never more so than in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem temple where the high priest went in every year on the Day of Atonement to offer sacrifice by pouring blood on the tip of temple mount that came up through the floor. God’s Presence that was manifested in the acceptance by God of the sacrifice of Atonement once a year was a very special Presence indeed. God’s acceptance of the Atonement sacrifice implied a permanent Presence, even though the sacrifice took place only once a year; and it was a Presence among the people that gave substance to the Covenant between God and the Jews. He was present because he was their God and they were his People; and the Holy of Holies was where the two met. The Holy of Holies was the holiest place in the world, where sacrifice was transformed into Presence. God was enthroned in the empty space over the Ark of the Covenant in the first temple, and above the bare top of the temple mount after the temple’s re-building. The Romans discovered to their surprise that the Holy of Holies was totally empty, but the Jews knew that this emptiness was full of God because of the sacrifice that was celebrated there once a year. The rock was also the exact spot, according to Jewish belief, where Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac and where he offered the sacrifice “which the Lord had provided” (). Covenanted Presence and sacrifice were linked together in temple theology.
There are obvious parallels between the Holy of Holies and the Christian altar. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the biblical roots of our understanding of the altar are very clear. It is the altar of sacrifice, representing Calvary; it is the Throne or Mercy Seat upon which the blood of Christ is sprinkled for our Atonement and from which God, in his Mercy, showers his grace on humankind, and this is the reason why the deacon calls on the people to ask God’s mercy so often during the celebration of the Byzantine Rite. The altar is Christ's tomb because from it comes the risen Christ to save us; it is the holy table of the Messianic feast, the marriage feast of the Lamb; and it represents the altar in heaven. It is the place where heaven and earth are joined, and where the Parousia or Second Coming is anticipated. As God’s throne or mercy-seat, it is not orientated in any direction. On the contrary, everything and everybody are orientated towards it. In a word, it is the “liturgical East” which priest and people face when they celebrate the Eucharist!!
Let us think, for a moment, about the great altar of the Jerusalem temple, just outside the Holy of Holies. This too can help us understand the role of the Christian altar. The altar that was placed before the inner sanctuary did not look like the altars we are used to. It was very high, and the priests reached the top by climbing a ramp; and it normally had a fire burning on top of it which would consume the offerings. The Fathers of the Church, especially St John Chrysostom, were not slow in identifying the Holy Spirit as the Fire that comes down on the altar to consume and transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. St John Chrysostom draws a parallel between what happened when Elijah invoked the Lord who sent down fire from heaven to consume the animal sacrifices on the mountain, and the priest who invokes the Lord who sends the Spirit on the bread and wine, as all heaven keeps reverent silence. St Symeon the New Theologian and St Seraphim of Zarov both saw the uncreated light of God descend on the gifts during the Eucharistic Prayer, The Father sends his Spirit who transforms the gifts and also ourselves to the degree that we allow him, and sustains by his divine activity the existence of the gifts as sacraments.
It can be asked why, if the altar is not orientated in any particular direction, being the meeting place between the Church and the Tri-une God, it has been traditionally placed at the eastern end of a church building, so that all who use it are facing East. The answer is liturgical symbolism. The eastward position links these three holy places together: the altars in the Jerusalem temple and the altar in the heavenly temple are linked with the visible altar on which Mass is celebrated. However, it remains true that the links are there, even when the eastern position has been abandoned in favour of the modern lay-out. For this reason, the altar remains the “liturgical east” and the focal point of the celebration, whichever way the priest is facing.
Like in the Holy of Holies, it is not the furniture in itself that is the holiest point in the church, but the surface and the space above it. The altar’s true holiness arises from what is performed on it. As altar, it is sanctified by the sacrifice that is offered on it; as throne it is sanctified by the divine, merciful Presence of the Father who sits on it and presents us with the sacrifice that the “Lord will provide” ; as table it is sanctified by the food that is laid on it. The Altar is not only the true centre of the church building, indeed, without which it is not a church, but is where the new covenant becomes a reality, the Church becoming the body of Christ. The altar is the true centre of the human race which is transformed by the Mass that is celebrated on it; and is the centre of the universe which is destined to pass through the death and resurrection of Christ into the life of the Blessed Trinity. It is for this reason, in the modern Roman Rite, the altar is kept free of clutter, so that there is unimpeded view of the altar surface where the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.
It is laid down in the rubrics (DA 7) that in new churches there should only be one altar. “It should be placed in a central position which draws the attention of the whole congregation” (CA 8) "The whole congregation" includes the priest. In a consecrated church it should be fixed to the floor and should normally be made of stone, unless the bishops decide otherwise (CA 9). The altar should be free standing “so that the priest can easily walk around it and celebrate Mass facing the people” (CA 8). (The Roman Missal General Instruction, No. 262). “The altar is dedicated to the one God by its very nature. (About the Church’s custom of dedicating altars to saints) “St Augustine expresses it well, ‘It is not to any of the martyrs, but to the God of the martyrs, though in memory of the martyrs, that we raise our altars.” (Contra Faustum XX, 21. PL 42, 3884). No statues or pictures of the saints should be placed over an altar in new churches, nor should relics of saints be placed on the altar for the veneration of the faithful (CA10). It is fitting that the custom of the Roman liturgy to celebrate Mass over the relics be retained, but these relics must be authentic and not placed either over the altar or set into the table slab, but in a special place under the altar. (CA11)
The Blessed Sacrament is preferably reserved in a chapel to some extent apart from the main body of the church, and another altar may be built there and used during weekdays when there are few people attending Mass. You may be somewhat surprised that it is recommended that the Blessed Sacrament should be in a chapel apart. Surely one of the most wonderful developments in the West has been adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. It has been a main factor in the sanctity of many saints, and a sense of Presence associated with the tabernacle has been a cause of many conversions. Why then do liturgists say it should be in a chapel apart? Is it a move in a Protestant direction?
The problem is that we have such a lively devotion to Christ in the sacramental host that it tends to take our attention away from other important ways in which God is present with his people. For instance, next to the Blessed Sacrament, icons tend to lose their sacred function, which is a pity. Even more important is the active presence of all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity in the Mass. The active presence of the Holy Trinity is expressed at the beginning of the celebration in the words of St Paul, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God (the Father), and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you. all.”. It is also expressed in the Doxology, “Through Him (Christ), with Him and in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honour and glory is Yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.” As is affirmed in the priest’s greeting in the Byzantine Rite, this participation by mere creatures in the life of the Blessed Trinity is what is meant by “the kingdom of God” When Eastern Christian touch the ground with their foreheads on entering a church during Lent, they are acknowledging the Divine Presence, not in the. Blessed Sacrament, but the Presence focused on the altar as the new Holy of Holies where the Atonement sacrifice is celebrated. Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament as our food is understood as the central means by which we enter into the life of the Trinity. This presence of the Blessed Trinity expresses itself in different ways during the course of the Mass; and, if we wish the faithful to become aware of the nuances of God’s presence, that Christ is the Father’s Word who speaks in the Liturgy of the Word by the power of the Holy Spirit, that the consecration is a prayer on behalf of the Church and in Christ’s Name to the Father, that when we pray the Mass and sing, we do so with Christ in the Spirit, so that the Father is both the Source and Goal of our praise, we need to separate the celebration from the continual presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament which tends to hold the peoples’ attention to the exclusion of everything else. We can either discourage devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, which would be to diminish our own spiritual patrimony; or we can keep the Blessed Sacrament in a sanctuary apart from the main altar..
The altar is holier than the holiest relic, holier than any icon because the Reality that all icons depict is celebrated on it. However, both in East and West, a crucifix is closely associated with the altar, either on it or near it. It is often a processional cross. It is not the centre of attention because the altar is that. Nevertheless it has an important role. There are two ways by which the Church relates to Christ’s death on the cross which come together in the Mass: firstly there is its historical memory, a memory that is contained in the Gospels and passed down from proclamation to proclamation, generation to generation, and which the Holy Spirit makes for us the fullest and most complete revelation of God in the flesh. Secondly, we are brought into the death and resurrection of Christ by sacramental participation in the sacrifice of the Mass. The crucifix is in a prominent place because it demonstrates that what is happening on the altar is one with what the Church remembers. However, it is often placed to one side so as not to impede the sight of the sacred gifts by priest and people. The other icon associated with the altar is the Gospel book which is carried in procession and is placed on the altar from which it is taken from there to be proclaimed at the correct moment. Like the crucifix, placing it on the altar shows us that what is proclaimed is identical with what is celebrated; but it is taken from the altar for the Gospel proclamation, principally, because the altar is the focal point of God's Presence, his Throne, and this liturgical action emphasises that it is being proclaimed as GOD's Word, and not as a mere holy text. The Father is the Source of that Word, Christ is his human voice, and the Holy Spirit is the Breath by which he speaks. It is returned to the altar afterwards because the Word always leads us back to the Father.
Recently I had the delight of celebrating Christmas twice. The first was in my monastery where I concelebrated with my abbot, and the second where I concelebrated at the Greek Catholic Byzantine Liturgy at the Ukrainian parish in Gloucester. They follow the Julian Calendar while the rest of the world follows the Gregorian Calendar; so their Christmas Day is on our January 7th. In our Victorian gothic monastic church the altar is under the tower and the presiding priest faces the people; while in their church, the presiding priest faces East, and the altar is separated from the people by an "ikonostasis"; yet, at both Masses the priests who are concelebrating with the main priest face the altar, looking, not towards the East wall or the crucifix or the people, but at what is happening in that sacred space on the surface of the altar. In East and West, this is clearly the focal point, what some call the "liturgical East", the place on which the Father sends his Son in the power of the Holy Spirit in what is an anticipation of the "Parousia" or Second Coming. In both East and West, in the ordinary Roman Rite and in its "extraordinary" Latin use, the priests face the altar, as do the people. In the Byzantine Christmas Divine Liturgy, the altar was completely encircled, with priests facing every point of the compass, but all were facing the altar.
The difference between East and West is that, while in the West we honour the altar by making it as prominent and as easily visible as possible, clearing away whatever impedes the view of its surface; while in the East they honour the altar by enclosing it in a sanctuary in which only those who are officiating may enter: two ways of honouring the holiness of the altar and what goes on there, and this reflects our different cultures. It could be said that, while the East emphasizes the holiness of the altar by putting ioft in a sanctuary, in the West the whole People of God is invited into the sanctuary. They complement each other. If we forget why the East prefers a sanctuary we will lose much of the significance of the Mass. However, we will also lose out if we forget why the whole community in the West "gathers round the altar in love". As for me, this January 7th was the first time I have participated in the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom without having to worry what is coming next; so I was able, on two separate days, to do what the shepherds did in the Lucan narrative, join with the angels in proclaiming with joy the Birth of the Saviour.
To sum up: the altar is the focal point of the Eucharistic celebration. Whether the priest and people are all facing east, or the priest is facing the people, both priest and people are focused on the altar. If priest and people are conscious of what is happening on the altar, nothing less than a theophany of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they will not waste time looking at each other, but will be bowed down with humility and love before the throne , offering to God, “an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” (Hb. 12, 28f). It is a common abuse and a misunderstanding of the whole meaning of the post-Vatican II liturgy if "Mass facing the people" is interpreted as "Mass looking at the people". The focal point of the Eucharist, whatever way the altar is facing, is the altar itself; and the attention of the whole community, priests, altar servers and people, is directed towards it and what is taking place on it.