The Altar

The altar is the center of the church, the altar is
both the place of sacrifice and the Communion table.

The altar is the meeting point between God and mankind, the true center of all religious buildings, positioned at the heart of the sanctuary, raised up on a few steps so that the architecture is drawn towards it. The word "altar" is derived from the Latin adjective altus, meaning "high". Mankind has always led him to put his places of worship on high; Mount Olympus was the dwelling place of the Greek gods. When no natural heights are available, the sanctuary is placed on the top of an artificial structure, as can be seen in the ziggurats of Mesopotamia. When man wanted to force his way into the holy kingdom, he thought up the Tower of Babel. Jewish tradition considers that mountains are the natural places to meet God, there, where heaven and earth touch. It was at the summit of Mount Sinai that Yahweh spoke to Moses.

As a sign of respect for divine transcendence, the smoke of offerings was first made to "go up" toward God who "smelt the pleasing smell" (Genesis 8:21). This is the tradition of sacrifice by fire, the holocaust (from the Greek holokaustos, "entirely burnt"). In the rite inspired by the Covenant on Mount Sinai, Moses shared the blood of the victims between the altar he had just built, which represents God, and the people whom he sprinkled with it. Yahweh and Israel thus became "of one blood." [Ex. 24:4-8] The New Christian Covenant continues this "consanguinity" and makes us into God's table guests, since the sacrifice of the communion feeds the congregation with the very body and blood of Christ himself. The altars in our churches are tables where these offerings are laid out. They are symbols of God, who receives the gifts which are offered by the congregation of the faithful. But the altar is also a communal table at which the guests share the sacred meal. Christ is, at once the altar, as God who receives the sacrifice, the priest, and the victim, as the man who offers it and who offers himself.

During the dedication of churches, the first thing is to consecrate the altar with an anointment of holy oil. After that, it is illuminated by the lighting of candles which is the sign of the Holy Spirit's taking possession of it. Finally, it is laid with altar cloths. The altar is, then, the most elevated symbol of Christ in the church.

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