The importance of the altar

Have you ever wondered about the importance and theology of the altar at Mass? Sure, the priest stands behind it, but is there something deeper?

Recently I read The Liturgical Altar, an old and short book by Geoffrey Webb, which addresses some fascinating points about the altar, as well as other liturgical elements.

Webb notes that the Church has always given wide latitude to artists and architects in designing churches. He then writes about the altar:

“But in the form and furnishing of the altar the Church’s directions are so all-embracing and exact, that individual preference plays but the smallest part and is guided and directed all the way for those who wish to follow the rubrics. The reason for these meticulous directions is to be found in the supreme importance which the Church attaches to the altar in her liturgy.

Not only does she consider it the central focus of the whole liturgy, the raison d’être of the building in which it stands; not only does she indicate that the church exists for the altar, rather than the altar for the church; not only does she look upon it as the sacrificial stone, upon which Christ, our priest and Victim, offers Himself daily in His Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is the central act of her liturgy; but she has proclaimed again and again that in her mind the altar represents her Lord Himself. He is Altar, Victim, and Priest…

Altar at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception - Denver, CO - Altar fabricated by Granda Liturgical Arts
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (Denver, CO) — Main altar created by Granda Liturgical Arts

This theology of the altar as representing Christ is found repeatedly throughout the Church’s teachings. One example is in the rite of ordination of sub-deacons, where we find this passage:

“For the Altar of Holy Church is Christ Himself, as John bears witness, who, in his Apocalypse, tells us that he beheld a golden Altar (Apoc. viii. 3) set before the throne, on and by which the offerings of the faithful are made acceptable to God the Father.”

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