Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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The altar: center of thanksgiving
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Feb. 4, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
The liturgical books refer to the altar as “the center of thanksgiving.” Eucharist is a word that means thanksgiving, and the altar is the table around which the people of God gather weekly to celebrate this great act of thanksgiving. Thus it takes its place, along with the ambo (pulpit) and the chair for the presiding priest, as one of the three principal furnishings within the sanctuary area of every church. Of course, the altar enjoys many other layers of symbolic meaning. For example, the altar signifies the presence of the risen Christ in the assembly. It is because of these various symbolic meanings that the altar table is treated with the utmost reverence and respect. It would clearly be the community’s most noble and precious piece of furniture. We certainly do not worship the altar, but we bow before it as before the One whom it represents. We kiss it, we bless it with incense.
The New Testament calls Christ the “living stone,” and so a long tradition tells us that ordinarily the altar would be made of stone, permanently affixed to the floor. In the United States it is permissible to use other worthy materials, following the judgment of the bishop. There is no specified size or shape for the altar, but it ought to be in proportion to the church. The altar would be designed with two factors in mind; it is a place of sacrifice, and at the same time a table for dining, around which Christ gathers the community to nourish them. There should be only one altar in the main part of the church (unless there are others of historical importance), and it should be centrally located in the sanctuary area, always the center of attention in the church. Newly published norms for the arrangement of church interiors explain that “During the celebration of the liturgy, the altar must be visible from all parts of the church, but not so elevated that that it causes visual or symbolic division from the liturgical assembly.”
Because of its profound symbolic nature, the altar is a sacred object, and should be treated accordingly. This means more than just bowing towards the altar during the liturgical rites. The altar is a sacred object all the time, and so it is always accorded special respect and attention. Nothing is ever placed on it that is not necessary for the celebration of the Eucharist – no missalettes, homily notes, no flower arrangements. It is certainly inappropriate to use the altar as a kind of workbench when cleaning or decorating the church (I once visited a church where a parish liturgy committee was meeting around the altar, complete with briefcases and Styrofoam coffee cups). Neither is it the place to attach flags, banners or children’s art. There are so many other places in the church buildings where such significant decorations can be enjoyed. The altar is to be free standing, never a backdrop for flower arrangements of nativity scenes. The “altar is Christ, and “the center of thanksgiving,” so nothing else should ever compete with it.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)