With the consecration of a new stone altar in Holborn, Luke Miller considers its centrality to the life of every church, priest and eucharist
It seems unremarkable to say that the altar is the focus of the church. But actually for most pagan temples, the focus was not the altar, but the idol. Whether the Parthenon, or Karnak, or the Temple of Mithras under Bank Station, the basic pattern was the same: you made your way through the various anterooms and courts until you gazed upon the image.
The concept of the pagan worship was managing the supernatural powers of the gods. Sacrifice and rituals would, up to a point, bind their capricious and dangerous actions: do this to make it rain; that to ensure the flooding of the Nile, the next thing to recruit the god against my enemies. Your worship managed them and kept them under control.
For the Jews, seized of the reality of the God who made all things, there could be no idol. The altar was still not the focus of worship, but the sacrifice made there was the offering that prepared access to the Presence, as once a year rites of atonement for sin and purification were made so that the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. The other parts of the Jewish sacrificial system similarly pointed beyond themselves: the Passover recalled the covenant the Lord made with his people that they should be his and he would be with them with mighty hand and outstretched arm.
These and the other sacrifices offered, like the two young pigeons to redeem the first born, still tried by human response to manage our end of the promise. And that – sinful, weak, distracted, finite as we are – we are not able to do.
In Jesus Christ we are given a new covenant. He will make the response we are not able to make. He will give us the gift of his presence with us so that the offering is his.
The sacraments of the church do not bind God, as though by pagan magic or assertion of our good works we can require him to do what we want. Rather in them we respond to his gift of himself. The Holy Sacrament of the Altar is a response to his promise, that if we use the forms of words he gave when he said, ‘This is my body, my blood’, while taking the matter which he defined, bread and wine, and conforming our personal will and desire to the will of his body, the Church, then he will do what he said he would, and give us the grace of his presence not by special intervention, but by covenanted gift.
So we can consider the Christian altar in four aspects, each of which is illustrated by part of the rite of consecration. Table, Stone, Tomb, Throne.
On the night He was betrayed he sat at Table. He did so at a Passover meal from which most of those who would normally attend a Passover were excluded. Just the Lord and the Twelve. None of the women nor the young like John Mark nor the brethren nor his friends from Bethany. At the Last Supper he instituted the new covenant meal and ordered the new priesthood of the church. So at the end of the rite of consecration the table is decked with cloths and dressed as for a banquet, and the church gathers not anyhow, but ordered, the priest in apostolic succession, the women and the young, brethren and friends set in their different places in the body where all are equal but not interchangeable, each members of the body, needing each other precisely because they are different.
The next afternoon he hung on the cross, and the altar is for us the Stone on which the sacrifice is made. Here the body and blood are offered in memory of that his precious death until he comes again. This memory, anamnesis, is the kind of remembering which makes the thing remembered present. The sacrifice is once for all, and was fully completed, when He called from the cross, ‘It is finished.’ Yet what he never can repeat is shown forth day by day. It is a memory like a computer memory, which makes present what is remembered.
The altar is thus marked with five crosses – the signs of his wounds. Because in his death his humanity is most clearly visible, it is here at the cross we may most nearly approach him. This is why on Good Friday we make the solemn intercessions, which like all our prayers, are only possible for us through Jesus Christ Our Lord, who is fully human and fully divine. Incense is therefore burnt on the new altar as a sign that here is our place of intercession, for here we come to the cross, the stone on which the sacrifice is offered in which He comes entirely to share our humanity, even its death, so that we may be drawn to his divinity which is life. The sacrifice made on the stone is not ours, but his.
For his burial and lying in the tomb he was anointed. Jacob poured oil over the stone at Bethel so that it would be a sign for people to see. The empty tomb became not a place of secret mourning and concealment, but the revealed sign of life. The first altars were often raised over the tombs of the confessors and martyrs, and relics are buried in the altar while it is anointed. In this new altar at Holborn is buried the relic of St Paul. The altar which is a Tomb is a sign of the resurrection, his, which through his love is shared with us all.
Which brings us to Easter, and to the altar considered as the Throne of the risen Lord. Not an idol at the heart of the Temple, but the mercy seat, the door of heaven, the place of meeting where heaven and earth are joined. This is what you have come to and nothing less. This is why we bow to the altar – we bow to the one who is seated on the throne above in glory. And it is why the altar is sprinkled, not to wash it, but to recall us to the new life we received in baptism when our life was united with his life, and we were reborn so that his eternal life might be ours.
Those who are alert liturgists will see that the rites are actually done in the reverse order. The altar is first sprinkled, then the burial of relics and the anointing; next the burning incense and, finally it is dressed and used for the celebration of the eucharist. It is Throne and Tomb and Stone and Table all at once. But above all it is the place of the gift and grace of God. And so it is at the centre and heart of the church.