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The Significance of the Altar

One finds a lot of different items in Catholic churches. The stained windows, paintings, statues, and other artwork are there to help remind us of important things in our faith.

The two most important items found in Catholic churches are the Tabernacle (where the Blessed Sacrament (the Body of Christ) is reserved for Communion to the sick), and the altar. The altar is centrally located to be a center point when a liturgy is celebrated in a church. Most often the Tabernacle is located behind the altar to put it in the center. In some churches, the Tabernacle is given its own special place for people to sit directly before it in prayer.

Today, I would like to offer a few thoughts about the importance of the altar. Please remember we do not worship the altar as an idol. It is God who we worship.

What makes the altar so special? By definition, an altar is a place where sacrifice is offered. You can read in the Old Testament about the altars where the prescribed sacrifices were offered.

Today, there is just one sacrifice offered on the altar. It is not a new sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of Jesus giving his life for our sins on the Cross that God, in a way only God can, makes present to us today. This makes the altar a very holy place.

That sacrifice is made present in the Eucharistic Prayer as the bread and wine are transubstantiatied into the Body and Blood of Jesus. The bread and wine become “true food” and “true drink.” Thus, the altar is again a very special place. It is the place where the Eucharistic meal is prepared.

Knowing the altar to be a place for the Sacrifice of Jesus and for the Eucharist to be consecrated, we offer great reverence to the altar.

This is why the clergy kiss the altar at the beginning when the procession reaches the sanctuary. Likewise, the clergy kiss the altar as they prepare to leave in the recessional. The kiss is an act of reverence. For the same reasons, you will see anyone approaching the altar bowing as an action of reverence. (We genuflect to the Tabernacle, recognizing the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.)

I hope all Catholics are aware of the bowing and kissing of the altar as a sign of reverence. I hope everyone appreciates the altar as the place of sacrifice as well as the place where the bread and wine are consecrated, becoming the Body and Blood of Jesus.

What you might not be aware of is that in the altar, one can find relics of saints. A relic is a bone fragment, blood, or hair from a saint. These would be first-class relics. It is normally first class relics that are found in an altar. Second-class relics are items that were personal possessions of the saint. Third-class relics are items that were touched by a first-class relic. (Please note that we do not worship relics or the saints. We worship only God. We venerate the saints as model disciples).

So, why do we put relics in altars?

We need to remember that the early church was persecuted. Masses often were not celebrated in public for fear of arrest. It was common for Mass to be celebrated in the catacombs where martyrs were buried. Thus, the remains of saints became connected to the celebration of Mass.

When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the “Edict of Milan” (313 A.D.), Masses began to be celebrated publicly. As permanent altars were built, it became customary to have relics in the altar as a connection to the past when the church was persecuted. The tradition continues today. (Some of the great historical churches like the Basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul are consecrated over their tombs from the same tradition.).

So, when you enter a church, look at altar and reflect what goes on there in the Sacrifice of the Mass. Ask the Holy Spirit and for the intercession of the saints to help you have a deeper faith in what happens at Mass.

Peace,

Fr. Jeff

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