What is the Significance of the Altar?

In 1950, C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was published. While it was originally released to mixed reception, the book ranks very highly among all-time classics. Coincidentally, it is also one of the most popular allegories for sin, Christ’s redemption of man, and the triumph of God.

One of the most memorable scenes from the book and subsequent film is the death and resurrection of Aslan, the Christ figure portrayed by a lion. In order to save the life of Edmund who committed the sin of treason, Aslan voluntarily gives himself up to the enemy and suffers death on the stone table, a metaphor for the altar on which we celebrate Christ’s unbloody sacrifice at every Mass.

While it is a practical and seemingly ordinary part of every church, the altar contains so much more meaning and purpose than we might think. John Morales welcomed Father Burke Masters back onto Morning Air to continue his “Be Formed” series and dissect the significance of the altar. Listen to the first segment here and the second segment here.

Father Burke, who recently returned from a pilgrimage to Rome, talked about the beautiful churches and altars that he saw there. He said St. Peter’s Basilica is often the one that people associate with Catholicism and Rome (Vatican City), and for good reason. It has one of the most beautiful and ornate altar configurations and there’s so much symbolism in it.

The Baldacchino that lays above the altar atop four pillars resembles an old bed, one that has a canopy perched above it. “It kind of symbolizes the marriage bed where God becomes one with us in the Eucharist, the Lord’s desire to unite Himself with us in the Eucharist. There are so many symbols that have such meaning in the Catholic Church.” John emphasized that the location of the altar is key as well. The altar, with the Tabernacle directly behind it, is the centerpiece of the sacrifice. St. Peter’s, which is designed like a cross, places the altar and tabernacle at the intersection point so that all eyes gravitate to Our Lord.

Father Burke called to mind a comment made by a Protestant author named Francis Chan. He said that for 1500 years, the focus of a church was the altar. Then, following the Protestant Reformation, that central altar was replaced by the preacher and the pulpit. Effectively, the Protestants replaced God’s permanent presence with a man. The altar should not be cast aside as it is the table at which Jesus celebrated the Last Supper and instituted the Eucharist. When we see the consecration at the altar, it is not a representation of Christ’s sacrifice, but a re-presentation. We are traveling back in time and bearing witness to His offering.

In the years following Christ’s death, the Christians suffered a lot of persecution, so their ceremonies and celebrations were often done in secret. Part of the reason every Catholic altar is required to have a relic inside or underneath it is that that was the original way Christians would celebrate Mass. After their loved ones had passed, they would bury them in the Catacombs and celebrate Mass atop their tomb. It was a reflection of the belief that the saints and their deceased loved ones would intercede and pray for them. It also honored the sacrifice of Jesus and the Christians who had died in the name of God.

John then asked about the ways to show proper reverence for the altar when entering a church. “So, the proper reverence toward the altar is a bow, and the tabernacle, a genuflection, going down to one knee. If they’re all in line, we would just genuflect toward the altar and the tabernacle before we go into our pew. In some churches, the tabernacle might be off to the side or in a Blessed Sacrament chapel. The proper reverence toward the altar is a bow in that case.” Father Burke also mentioned the kiss that the priest and/or deacon deliver to the altar after processing in and before processing out. He said that it is out of piety for this sacred object which is a “representative of Christ’s presence” and His sacrifice.

Lastly, Father Burke spoke about the correlation between the consecration of an altar and baptism into the Church. Each altar must be consecrated before it is allowed to be used for the celebration of Mass, just as a person must be baptized before they may receive the Eucharist. The first step in consecration is the blessing with holy water. After that, the altar is blessed with chrism oil which represents new life. Then, they drape the altar in a white cloth and surround the altar with candles.

This process is directly parallel to Baptism. First, the person being baptized is blessed with holy water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This blessing gives them new life in Christ. Then, if they are a baby, they are typically dressed and swaddled in a white cloth or garment, and a candle is lit from the Paschal candle.

There is so much meaning in the sacred objects and components in our churches, it is easy to take them for granted. The next time we walk into a chapel or church, let us consciously take note of the meaning and significance of them so that we may encounter Our Lord in a deeper way.

Listen to the full conversation below:

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John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at relevantradio.com and on the Relevant Radio® app.