Why is the altar a sign of Christ?

During the Entrance Procession, when the priest and his ministers reach the entrance to the sanctuary, they make a sign of reverence, a bow of the body to the altar.  (If the tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament is in the sanctuary, then instead of bowing to the altar, they should genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament.)  Then the priest ascends to the altar and kisses it before going to his chair; the deacon kisses the altar as well.  On particularly solemn occasions, the priest may even bless the altar with incense.  Why is all this attention paid to the altar?  Because the altar is a sign of Christ; according to one of the Prefaces for the Eucharistic Prayer during the Easter season, Christ is the “sacerdos, altare et agnus” (“priest, altar, and lamb”) of His sacrifice.[1]

It is easy to recognize Christ as the priest and the lamb (that is, the victim); why He is the altar deserves some explanation to our modern minds.  St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century and spiritual father of St. Augustine, took the image of Christ-as-altar for granted in his treatise De Sacramentis, where he writes (without much explanation) that “the altar is a type [i.e. sign] of the body [of Christ]” (Book IV, 7) and then again almost as an aside, “for what is the altar but the type of the body of Christ?” (Book V, 7)

Consider first the composition of the altar.  Traditionally, the altar is made of stone and is immovable – although some countries, such as the United States, may use wood for the altar, provided it is “worthy, solid, and well-crafted.” (GIRM 301)  Why stone for the altar?  St. Paul speaks of Christ as “the supernatural Rock” that accompanied the Israelites in the desert during their exodus from Egypt, the Rock from which flowed water for their sustenance. (1 Cor. 10:4; cf. Ex. 17:6)  Sts. Paul and Peter identified Christ as the “cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:6), and Jesus used this language referring to Himself. (cf. Luke 20:17-18)  The concept is found in Psalm 118:22-26, the very same psalm that the inhabitants of Jerusalem sang as Jesus entered their city.

Not only is Christ “that living stone” (1 Pet. 2:4), but we too are called to be “living stones.” (1 Pet. 2:5)  This means the altar is also a sign of the Church, made up of diverse people, living stones, gathered and built into one, in peace and unity.  St. Paul described the Church as being made up of those Jews and Gentiles who accepted Christ, and that Christ “is our peace, who has made us both [Jew and Gentile] one.” (Eph. 2:14)  Jesus “kissed [this altar, the Church] in the middle” with the “holy kiss of peace and unity” (Douay Catechism 125), so the priest imitates Christ in kissing the altar and in doing so, shows “a sign of his affection and close adherence to Christ.” (The Glories of the Catholic Church, p. 222)

Now consider what takes place on the altar.  An altar is a place of sacrifice, a place of offering something to God, a place of encountering God.  Jesus offered Himself on earth on the “altar of the cross,” and that offering is now made present on the Church’s altar.  The altar is related to our Lord’s Passion and represents the cross, so the priest bowing before the altar “signifies the prostrating of Christ in the garden, when he began his passion.” (Douay Catechism 125; cf. Matt. 26:39)  Jesus went so far as to identify the Temple (and its altar) with Himself:

Jesus [said], “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”  But he spoke of the temple of his body. (John 2:19-21)

“For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? … For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Matt. 23:17-19)

Jesus is the “gift” being offered on the altar, but He makes it clear that the altar makes the gift sacred; you certainly would not offer a sacrifice on an altar less dignified than the sacrifice itself.  That makes Jesus (Who sanctifies) both the gift and the altar.

Rev. Maurice de la Taille, SJ, meditating upon Christ as altar in his 1915 book The Mystery of Faith, illuminates further:

Those who desired to offer sacrifices to God, had to do so necessarily through an altar.  But Christ, the Victim of salvation, approached to God through Himself.  Hence He was also the altar of His own sacrifice.  For us too in like manner, He is the altar of every one of our sacrifices, for we can bring no offering to God except through Christ. (Chapter 5, Section 2)

Not only did Christ approach the Father through Himself as an altar, but now Christ is our altar through Whom we approach the Father.  St. Paul exhorted the Romans, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Rom. 12:1)  This thought was taken up by St. Peter who completed it when he wrote that we are “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 2:5)  It is no accident that we offer our prayers to God “through Christ our Lord.”

In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, two prayers accompany the approaching and kissing of the altar.  As he ascends the steps to the altar, the priest prays that the Lord remove our iniquity so that we might enter the Sancta Sanctorum (“Holy of Holies”) worthily, with pure minds.  This prayer is not present in the Ordinary Form,[2] but the priest should still be aware of its sentiment as he approaches the altar of sacrifice.  In the prayer that accompanies the kissing of the altar, the priest asks God pardon for his sins, by the merits of His “saints whose relics are here” and of all the saints.  While this prayer is not found in the Ordinary Form, the Church has retained the ancient tradition of placing relics of saints within the altar stone. (GIRM 302)  This practice calls to mind the early history of the Church, when persecuted Christians used martyrs’ tombs for altars. (Baltimore Catechism III 937)  By kissing the altar above the place where the relics are reserved, the priest silently declares his union with and affection for the saints who have gone before him.  This kiss is a “holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16), a “kiss of love” (1 Pet. 5:14), for Christ and for His Church and her members.  It is a kiss by which we begin to learn that the liturgy is “the purest and most sublime school of love.” (The Splendour of the Liturgy, p. 38)


[1] According to Rev. Jean Danielou, S.J., this expression can be traced to St. Cyril of Alexandria and Origen. (cf. The Bible and the Liturgy, p. 130)

[2] In the Extraordinary Form, the Penitential Act happens before the priest goes to the altar, while in the Ordinary Form, the Penitential Act happens after he has gone to the altar.  This may explain this prayer’s omission from the Ordinary Form.

Theology on Tap (twice)

Every other Thursday evening I go to Rider University in Lawrenceville, NJ, to lead a Bible study for the Campus Catholic Ministry there. I also try to show up for other events when I can, such as their Wednesday night dinners.

Yesterday they took a “field trip” to Cherry Hill, NJ, for a Theology on Tap presentation by Fr. Rob Sinatra, for the diocese of Camden. (We’re in the diocese of Trenton.) It was an enjoyable and educational evening, on the topic of “Why We Do What We Do” during Lent, putting great emphasis on the three traditional lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

In March and April, I will be driving out to Harleysville, PA, for the Theology on Tap events of the Metanoia Young Adults of Montgomery County. In March, it will be to get a lay of the land (and to listen to Fr. Dennis Gill’s presentation on the liturgy), and in April it will be to give my own presentation on “The Apostolate of the Laity”. Information about this talk will be forthcoming.

Lenten Lament: Parce Domine

They may not be up-beat, but they are definitely some of my favorite chants. I’m talking about the traditional Latin chants used in the Roman Rite during the penitential and preparatory season of Lent. I call them “Lenten laments”, and I would like to share a few of them with you over these next 40+ days. (Hey, it might get me to blog more frequently… what bloggers do you know who are giving up not blogging for Lent?)

For each lament, I’ll provide the Latin text, a rather literal translation, and then my attempt at a flowing translation (either one that rhymes or that adheres to the meter of the Latin… maybe both).

The first lament of the season is Parce Domine. This chant, “Spare, O Lord”, comes from Joel 2:17, which you probably recall hearing on Ash Wednesday:

Between the porch and the altar
let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep,
And say, “Spare, O LORD, your people,
and make not your heritage a reproach,
with the nations ruling over them!
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?'”

Here is the chant (an antiphon with verses) in Latin:

R. Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo; ne in aeternum irascaris nobis.
(Spare, Lord, spare your people; lest you be angry with us forever.)

1. Flectamus iram vindicem, ploremus ante Judicem;
clamemus ore supplici, dicamus omnes cernui.
(Let us bow before the avenging wrath, let us weep before the Judge;
let us cry out with words of supplication, let us speak, all falling prostrate.)

2. Nostris malis offendimus tuam Deus clementiam;
effunde nobis desuper remissor indulgentiam.
(By our wickedness we have offended your clemency, God;
pour forth pardon on us from above, forgiver.)

3. Dans tempus acceptabile, da lacrimarum rivulis
lavare cordis victimam, quam laeta adurat caritas.
(Giving us an acceptable time, grant, in the rivers of our tears,
to wash [our] hearts’ sacrifice, enkindled by joyful charity.)

4. Audi, benigne Conditor, nostras preces cum fletibus
in hoc sacro jejunio fusas quadragenario.
(Hear, benign Creator, our prayers, with lamentations,
poured forth during this holy fast of forty days.)

5. Scrutator alme cordium, infirma tu scis virium;
ad te reversis exhibe remissionis gratiam.
(Kind searcher of hearts, you know [our] bodily weaknesses;
to those returning to you, show the grace of forgiveness.)

Here is my translation which can be sung to the Latin chant’s melody:

R. Spare Thy people, Lord; spare thy people kneeling here before Thee;
lest Thy anger stay upon us forever.

1. To our knees we fall before Thy wrath, weeping tears of true contrition;
crying out in supplication, we call to Thee with sorrowful hearts.

2. By our sins we have offended Thee, transgressing upon Thy mercy;
pour down upon us from on high Thy gracious pardon, merciful One.

3. Cleanse the off’ring of our hearts, O Lord, in our tears and Thy charity:
now is the day of salvation, now is a most acceptable time.

4. O benign Creator, hear our prayers, bend Thine ear to our lamentations,
in this season of penitence, this holy Lent of forty days.

5. O, provident searcher of the heart, Thou Who know’st our ev’ry weakness;
grant Thy grace of forgiveness to those returning unto Thee.