What’s on your altar?
I was driving recently and noticed that question on a church sign of one of our neighboring churches. I was stuck by seeing the sign at first, because it does evoke necessary reflection upon an important aspect of our faith.
What is an altar? An altar, to many, is a table-like structure usually located in a church where prayers are said and a sacrifice is offered. Indeed the very word altar has its derivative in the Latin word Altus which means elevated or higher. There was a sense in which the altar was a place that connected humanity with divinity. Our altar is located three steps above the floor of the rest of the sanctuary, as a symbolic gesture of having that sense of altus. Truth to be told, I’ve seen some old pictures of the interior of St. John’s Church that shows that at one time it was five steps above the sanctuary! Altars were not something that were exclusively Christian, or even Jewish. We see even throughout our scriptures how pagan altars abounded and St. Paul was even able to use one pagan altar “to the unknown god” to his advantage in preaching the Gospel. Altars will usually have an image on or near them to indicate who they are dedicated to. Traditionally, Catholic Churches had several altars in them, usually a central altar of sacrifice and side altars dedicated to various saints like our Blessed Mother or St. Joseph. Sometimes altars would have dedications to Jesus directly such as to the Sacred Heart. In Catholic worship, we do not worship the saints directly, but rather rely on them as powerful intercessors before God. Catholic altars always have on them a crucifix to remind us that the sacrifice offered on the altar isn’t to the saint whose image is depicted, but to Jesus Christ through that saint’s intercession. You might notice that a small crucifix has appeared on the main altar of our Church. I have placed that there deliberately. It is for me or for any priest offering the Mass such that the image of our Lord always stands before him as a reminder that the Mass is making the sacrifice of the cross present again. It is also a helpful reminder to be like our patron, St. John, who found himself at the foot of that same cross as a faithful disciple. What’s on your altar? A Cross, and there’s good reason for it!
With God’s Love,