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Origins and Meaning of the Christian Altar

by Peter J. Riga

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    This article is intended as a general guide in the history, development, and meaning of that which stands symbolically at the center of Christian worship, the altar.
  • Larger Work:
    The American Ecclesiastical Review
  • Pages: 100-122
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Catholic University of America Press, August 1963

The following study does not propose to be in any way exhaustive. It is intended only as a general guide in the history, development, and meaning of that which stands symbolically at the center of Christian worship, the altar. It is surprising to find so very few studies on this theme. The subject is of great importance to the present period of liturgical revival. For to understand the true symbolism of the altar—so well known to the first centuries of Christianity—is to hold the key to a deeper understanding of the liturgy itself in its essential core which is the supreme sacrifice of the Word Incarnate. The Christian religion is essentially liturgical, since it is the religion of the God-Man who is the eternal Priest and glorious Victim.1 It is this liturgy which has as its principle the God-Man and which communicates itself to the faithful by the seven sacred signs and above all by the sacramental sacrifice of the Eucharist. It is this, which is normative for the true Christian spirit. The altar, then, stands symbolically and really at the heart of this Christian mystery par excellence and to understand its symbolism is to understand what is most essential in the Christian religion.

The Old Testament

There is little doubt that many of the traditions of Israel were intimately tied up with those of the East of that time. This has become an almost sacred principle of modern-day scripture scholars, and texts which have been discovered in the past one hundred years have only borne out the contention.2 The history of the Hebrew altar is no exception. The testimony of all archaeological findings in the vetero-testimentary milieu bears out one important fact: the altar goes back as far as man himself and represents man's effort at some communication between himself and God or gods.3

The sentiment that the Divinity manifests itself on the top of mountains also contributed greatly to the construction of sanctuaries, temples, and Ziggurats on the top of these so-called "high places," the bamot, or the Latin, excelsa. It will be remembered that Israel was allied to this same tradition in all of its progressive legislation on the position of altars and sanctuaries in the Pentateuch. We will not enter into the complicated question of the evolution of this legislation, since experts in the matter are not agreed.4 In short, it is agreed that there were various hands which each contributed to the construction of this progressive element of the altar in the Old Testament. These are four in number: the Bb (Bundesbuch) found in Ex. 20-23, P. (Priester-codex) found in Ex. 25:1-31:11 and Lev. 1-16, CS (Heiligkeits-gesetz) as part of P found in Lev. 17-27, and D found in Deut. 12-16 which is parallel to Bb and CS.

When applied to the Legislation on altars we find two types mentioned in Bb—the common altar to which all are to go three times a year to offer a sacrifice. There are private altars as well which were permitted on condition that they be of unhewed stone or earth (Ex. 20:25). These altars were without steps and anyone was allowed to offer sacrifice here. The reason why these private altars had to be of earth or unhewed stone was to prevent any permanent sanctuary being established in opposition to the one sanctuary. The texts evolve in the Priester-codex when the code explicitly mentions one bronze altar. All fat and blood had to be offered here. Because this is so, it is therefore implicitly postulated that there were private altars. The laws of CS state that every killing of an animal is a sacrifice and had to be brought to the house of Iahweh, i.e., the tabernacle tent, which was situated in the middle of the Israelite camp. Thus, this presupposes that all private altars have been abolished.5 The laws of D are the same as CS. It demands only one altar in the house of God, because it must centralize everything; one temple, one Priesthood, one God, one country, one law. All Israelites had to come to the temple three times a year and all private altars are abolished. It is very evident in this document, since all sacrifice of an animal outside the main sanctuary is to be poured out "as water." It seems that the sitz-im-leben of Deuteronomy was an attempt to do away with the abuse of idolatry, which could happen when the people sacrificed privately. Again, it seems it was also to suppress all pagan infiltrations in sacrifice and in rites.

By this brief analysis of vetero-testamentary evolution of the notion of the altar we simply wish to show the solicitude for and importance of the altar for the Jews of old. They inherited the fundamental notion of the altar as being the meeting place, the "high place," the "sacred heights," from their pagan background. We have already mentioned how much the Jews depended on the common traditions of the Near East, which take us back to the very dawn of recorded history. But these pagan traditions were not accepted as such by the chosen people. Under the divine guidance of divine inspiration they slowly purified their notion of sacrifice and altar. The notion of altar, so fundamental to primitive man as far back as we can go, is retained, but we note a constant purification and symbolic aspect of the one altar located —after the entry of the chosen people into the promised land—at the sanctuary of Jerusalem. The dangers of polytheistic rites are slowly discarded by doing away progressively with private altars and the centralization of the cult is inculcated by the notion of the one place of sacrifice and altar. Since there is but one God and one Priesthood, there must be only one altar and one sacrifice offered in one place. Only those who do not understand the purgative influence of God on a very imperfect people as the Jews will be scandalized at this progress in the notion of altar in the Old Testament.

The Near Eastern mentality held the altar on a high place (real or artificial as the Babylonian Ziggurat), either because God was thought to reside in the sanctuary at that high place where the Divinity descended to dwell or because it was simply His residence here on earth where the Divinity joined with the faithful and where the Divinity descended and the faithful mounted to meet it.6 This notion is quite evident in all the existent archaeological findings of the Near East. Israel took over this basic tradition, but under divine guidance came to purify it of all pagan and polytheistic influences. Not only does centralization mean unity and elimination of pagan dangers, but it also becomes a major factor in the later spiritualization or interiorization of the cult of Iahweh. The prophets were the first to emphasize this notion and were consequently responsible for the other tradition in Jewish history which laid much emphasis on the concept of spiritual worship as opposed to the pure externalism of much of the Jewish cult.7 But this is to develop later and will have its great influence on writers of the New Testament—principally St. Peter—in their notions of Regale Sacerdotium, Rationale Obsequim and Templum Spiritale.

Religious Value Of The Old Testament Altar

Having seen its evolution, let us now turn to its religious signification. It is interesting to note that in the earliest texts, the altar is never called "table." It was but another way of counteracting pagan influence whose altars were invariably known as "table."8 The temple which is the dwelling place of God has its center: the altar. The idea is expressed in an indirect way in the form of a fire which must burn perpetually on the altar and the lamp which must remain lighted at all times in the temple.9 A parallel with the future Christian altar is the special sanctity attributed to the corners of the altar which had to be rubbed with blood. This was true both for the altar of holocausts and the altar of perfume as a yearly rite of purification (cf. Ex. 29:12; Lev. 4:1, 8:9; Ez. 43:20). The "corner" in the Bible is the sign of power. But it is, according to DeVaux, possible that the corners were the remains of pagan influence as emblems or images of the divinity or divinities. This later became known as the five crosses engraved on Christian altars—not with blood but with sacred Chrism. It fits in well with Christian symbolism, which did not hesitate to add a fifth cross as a symbol of the five wounds of Christ. It was especially significant since the altar represents for Christians— Christ, the only true and spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God.

In any case, the altar in the Old Testament prepares very well for the future Christian reality. In all our present texts without exception the altar comes to be a sign of the divine presence of God among His people. Surely, it is this same thought which is present in the notion of the temple,10 but the essential core or nucleus of the temple is its altar, as we have already seen above. In ancient times, the altar commemorated a theophany11 and was named such by Jacob at Sichem, "El, God of Israel." Later, the altar will be specially consecrated and annually purified on the day of Expiations, giving it a very special sanctity.12

Finally, by its very usage, the altar is an instrument of mediation. The offerings of men are placed on it, and it is there that they are consumed, taken from profane usage, and given to God. God responded to man's gift with His benedictions (Ex. 20:24), and it is on the altar that the alliance is maintained and re-established between God and His people. We shall see how perfectly this is to prefigure the eternal alliance of the Son of man who offered the everlasting and pleasing sacrifice on the altar of His own body.

The New Testament

The information on the altar in the New Testament is both meager and plentiful. If one looks for any direct reference to the notion of altar as such, the texts are extremely few and even these have a heavy symbolical and allegorical meaning. It is most difficult, if not impossible, to find any direct reference to the altar as we know it today in our canonical scriptures. It is quite true to say, however, that since the early Christians almost as a body were converts from Judaism, there was no complete break with many traditional Jewish practices. This was especially so since for this early group, Christ was considered especially as the fulfillment of the Jewish Messianic hopes.13 It was, then, quite natural for this tradition of early Christianity to respect and use the altar in Jerusalem. Soon, however, we see a second tradition develop as many pagans are admitted into the Church with the preaching missions of St. Paul and the difficulties all of this movement entailed between the Judeo-Christian and Pagan-Christianity. This is brought out very well by Paul himself in Gal. 2:1-15, with its parallel in the fifteenth chapter in the Acts of the Apostles.14 In any case, the numbers of Christians from paganism had far outnumbered those from Judaism, so that St. Paul had to warn the former against pride and arrogance against the latter in his epistle to the Romans as early as 55-58 A.D. The essential point is that rapidly the Christians abandoned the early attachment to Jewish cult with its attachment to the temple and its altar. This data is certain from the texts of the New Testament and Christianity's progressive understanding of its own mission to the pagans and, above all, its full comprehension that not only does Christianity fulfill the promises of the Old Testament, but displaces the "Israel of the flesh" to be replaced by the Christians who were neither Jews nor pagans but the tertium genus. Christ abolished the law with His death and united Jews and pagans into one body.15

Consequently, the incipient tendency, which existed from the very beginning of Christianity of celebrating the Eucharist or Fractio Panis takes on more of a focus point in Christianity. But are there any explicit texts, without going into the notion of the spiritualization of the cult, to the temple and altar?

The texts are few. Principally, they are: Apoc. 6:9; I Cor. 10:21 (and parallel text, I Cor. 3:16); the theme of the building stone in various passages, but principally in Matt. 26:44; Eph. 2:22, and I Peter 2:1-10. These are the principal texts of the New Testament. Let us examine them exegetically and in their proper contexts.

The Texts

It is without a doubt that our first gospel is that of Proto-St. Matthew or the original logia kuriaka mentioned by Papias.16 The essential point here is that in our present passage Matt. 21:44, one of the earliest of the New Testament, there is mention of the theme so constant in almost all the writers of the New Testament—that of the cornerstone representing Christ which is rejected by the builders, i.e., the Jews in our concrete case. The theme, then, is even older than Christianity, because in the context, the Jews readily understand the words of Christ with no further explanation and become angered by Christ's comparison. It is, to be sure, the theme of the prophets themselves who were persecuted by the very people they were sent to warn and chastise. It is very constant in prophetical literature. Cf. Elijah in I Kings 19:1; Is. 53:1-4; Jer. 4:14-22; Hos. 6:1-4; Amos 7:10-13, and parallel texts in the Books of Kings. This same theme is kept throughout early Christianity as one explanation for the great scandal of the unbelieving Jews. Uttered by Christ Himself (cf. the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:12, "Thus did they persecute the prophets before you") it appears in early Christianity at a very early date with the anti-Jewish sermon of St. Stephen: Acts 7:52: "Which of the prophets have your fathers not persecuted?"

The theme of the spiritual temple and Christ as its spiritual cornerstone rejected by the Jews, royal Priesthood, and the spiritual sacrifices, are all themes, which are very closely related throughout the whole of the New Testament. Christ now takes the place of the temple or rather it is Christ's body which now becomes the new temple, the new altar which prefigures His glorious sacrifice and thereby does away with the materialistic and formalistic rituals of the Jews. As the Epistle to the Hebrews was at such great pains to express, these rituals have been eliminated since the fulfillment of what they prefigured has appeared. This is certainly what St. John meant in his famous passage of his Gospel, 2:13-22. St. John himself tells us that it was the temple of His body to which Christ referred. The theme of noncomprehension found in the mysterion of the synoptic gospels is found here but more developed. The Jews misunderstand, since they try to materialize the message of Christ. The disciples do not understand either—but with this difference—that they believe in Christ and consequently they "are His." They will receive the gift of the Spirit to understand, is the Johannine theme of the recordati sunt. As Fr. Congar points out, all patristic thought as well as the Apostles themselves interpreted this passage as the new temple and worship which is present in the sacred humanity of the Word Incarnate.17 The contrast is evident in St. John who did nothing but develop the earlier notions of spiritual sacrifice, Priesthood, and temple of the New Testament. It will be remembered that John wrote many years after the death even of Sts. Peter and Paul and that these ideas were common coinage in early Christianity. We can safely say that this notion of St. John represents the developed theology of spiritual sacrifice, temple and altar in the New Testament. This is not strange at all and the earlier exaggerations of German scholars especially of the Tubingen School have been discarded and many modern scholars have returned to the traditional interpretation here of the Fathers and of the New Testament itself.18 We feel fully justified, then, both critically and exegetically in summing up this whole trend of Neo-Testamentary theology of Christ's body being the new temple (altar) and the new worship which is contained—but less fully developed—in the other texts of Matthew, Peter, and Paul (prescinding from the added problem of who was the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews). We shall not attempt to prove this—as the limited scope of this paper will not allow it—but we shall simply take it for granted that there is such a thing as homogenous development even in the texts of the New Testament.19

St. John, then, gives us the interpretation of this whole passage himself: "But He (Christ) spoke of the sanctuary of His Body."20 The Jews, as we have already seen, understood this in a materialistic way, referring to the material structure of the building begun by Herod. This theme of blindness of the Jews to Christ's deeper, spiritual message is evident throughout the gospels and is present in most of the great discourses of Christ in John's gospel.21 They fail to see one of the great symbols of St. John—that the body of the resurrected Christ will be the center of the cult in spirit and in truth (John 4:21 ff.), the presence of the Divinity (John 1:14), the spiritual temple from which flows the source of living water (Apoc. 21 :22). This was founded on the most literal words of Christ Himself. (Cf. Matt. 26:61 and 12:6.)

First, let us examine the problem of this purification of the temple. Chronologically, it is put by the other evangelists at the end of Christ's public life.22 Why did John transpose it to the beginning of Christ's public life?23 The answer is to be found in the theme of remembering common to St. John. "When Jesus rose from the dead. His disciples remembered . . ." (John 5:22). It is quite evident that what St. John means here is not simply a fact of physical memory. The theme of "remembering —intelligence" is much more profound than that. In our present text, it is mentioned twice (John 5:17, 22). In both cases, the Apostles would "remember" only after the Resurrection. What is the meaning of this Joannine theme?24

From an investigation of the gospel texts we can see an evangelical tradition, which holds that the disciples did not understand the words of Christ until after the Resurrection. The words of Christ are not only remembered physically (evidently) but they were only then fully understood. This tradition is preserved for us only in the texts of St. Luke and St. John.25

St. Luke in chapter 24:6-8 states: "He is not here; He is risen; remember how He spoke to you when He was in Galilee, saying: It is necessary that the Son of man be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and that He be crucified and rise on the third day.' And they remembered His words…" This same theme is continued by Luke in chapter 24:44-46: "And He said to them: 'These are the words which I spoke to you when I was as yet with you—that it was necessary that all be fulfilled which was written in the law of Moses and the prophets and psalms about Me.' Then He opened their eyes as to the meaning of the scriptures and said: 'Thus was it written and thus was it necessary that Christ suffer and rise from the dead on the third day…' "

In other words, what Luke is trying to tell us is that the scriptures had to be fulfilled as to His passion and death. This came as such a shock that they just couldn't believe it at its face value. It would be only after the Resurrection that the scandal would be removed and they would only then understand the deeper meaning of the scriptures and of the words of Christ Himself.

If we turn to St. John, we find the very same theme applied to the text of Isaiah concerning the passion of Christ. But with this difference: St. John, as an inspired reader, extends it’s meaning and its application. He extends this intelligence not only to the texts of the passion and resurrection of Christ (as Luke did) but now extends it to the whole of scripture. John 12:16 referring to the joyful acclamation at Jerusalem says: "His disciples did not know these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they understood that these things were written about Him." When the event actually took place, the disciples did not understand. It was only after His glorification (i.e.. His resurrection) that they understood that the scriptures had predicted these events concerning Christ. The events were prepared and foretold in the Old Testament. Afterwards they would understand under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

Thus the disciples, in our passage, could apply these words of Christ in relation to the temple only after the resurrection. They can understand "that He spoke of the temple of His Body." The sign, (miracle), which Christ gives the Jews is the sign of His resurrection. This Greek word was used purposely by John, which was not common in Christian tradition. John changed the word since the regular word for build (used by the Synoptics) is oi.Ko8op.w(ask Skitter). Thus the word is not of a material structure, but the raising up of His Body, the glorious resurrected Body of Christ, which now becomes the whole center of the Christian religion. The material temple which was a figure—as a meeting place between God and man, as holding the presence of God— has now become the reality of Emmanuel, God with us, the logos "who pitched His tent among us," the one "whose glory" the disciples saw.26

According to all later Greek theology (which is dependent on St. John) we see this analogy between the Jewish temple and Christ's glorious temple (Body). The glorious Body of Christ is the center of the new spiritual religion and takes the place of the old temple. A new temple was expected in messianic times.27 Thus we see in the Apoc. 21:22.28 "And I did not see a temple in her (Jerusalem): For the Lord, the God Almighty, is its temple with the Lamb."

In the final analysis, it is John who here gives us his own interpretation of his Evangelical words. The old temple has disappeared as well it might since it was but a figure of preparation of Him who was to come. According to John, the Word has come among us and we saw His glory. St. John read all this in the scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.29 The center of worship, of sacrifice, of God's presence among men, will henceforth be the Body of the risen Christ.30

This same theme is exactly what St. Paul tells us in his whole epistle to the Hebrews. This entire text has one objective: the old Priesthood and sacrifice was figurative and imperfect; it awaited its fulfillment in and through the only begotten Son of God by His perfect sacrifice who is our eternal Priest and Intercessor:

For it is impossible that with the blood of oxen and goats sin should be taken away. Wherefore, when He came into the world He said: "Sacrifice and oblation you did not want; but a body you did form for Me. Holocausts for sin did not please you." Then said I: "Behold, I come. In the head of the book it is written of me that I should do thy will, oh God." In saying before: "Sacrifices and oblations and holocausts for sin you would not; neither are they pleasing to you, which are offered according to the law"; then said I: "Behold, I come to do thy will, oh God"; he takes away the first, that he may establish that which follows. In the which will, we are sanctified by the oblation of the Body of Jesus Christ once and for all. (Heb. 10:4-10)

The temple, the altar, the sacrifice, the priest are all now the glorious Body of Christ—Christ Himself resurrected and glorified. Such is the teaching of the sacred scriptures31

Conclusion From The New Testament

We have not attempted to give a full exegesis of all of the texts of the New Testament. It is quite difficult to find any book of the New Testament, which does not mention the temple (and its altar as an integral and essential part of the temple) and consequently which could not aid us in our present study. Such a study, which needs to be developed, is beyond the scope of this short paper. We have taken it for granted that the theology of St. John, both in his gospel and apocalypse, is the result of a homogenous evolution of thought in the primitive Christian community under the Apostles and guidance of the Holy Spirit. If this seems bizarre to unbelievers, it comes as no surprise whatsoever to those with faith—for St. John, as well as all the other writers of the New Testament, presuppose this faith which alone can give them the "understanding" of their sacred texts.

St. John proposes before us, for our contemplation, the Son of God, clothed in flesh to do His Father's will which is that "all might come to know and love God." St. John as an inspired writer can read meaning not only into the texts of the Old Testament but also into the meaning of Christ's words themselves. But so doing, he sees all in terms of the incarnate and glorified Christ. Everything else was a preparation or figure (as St. Paul also says) of Him. This is true of the manna in the desert, the serpent raised up, the Pascal Lamb and, above all, of the temple and its altar. These figures of the Old Testament bore some resemblance—albeit obscure and imperfect—to Christ for whom they were intended. The temple and its altar were the most sacred places of Jewish worship, for there alone could sacrifice pleasing to God be offered. It was the meeting place between God and men, the sign of God's reconciliation, mercy, forgivings, and love. Now the temple is only a figure or image of Christ, to be replaced by Christ Himself, who is the only true dwelling place of God in the strict sense, where God's glory dwelt really and permanently, the true meeting place between God and men since it was He who is "our peace" by "His own sacrifice" offered in His blood and is powerful by that sacrifice to "cleanse all who come to Him." He stands now and forever in His resurrected humanity always "making intercession for men." Thus Paul and John are saying and repeating the very same message. It is marvelous to see how it is the very same basic message contained and complemented by our two sacred authors. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that this same notion will be taken by later writings and Christian symbols in the midst of the Church that the altar as representing Christ and His spiritual sacrifice is a fact based securely on the very scriptures themselves.

The Christian Altar In Christian Antiquity32

We have already seen above that the first Christians were do to the Jews in many externals of liturgical action. It is quite true to say that even from the beginning Christians had their own services—the Eucharist service in the factio panis as recorded for us in Acts 2:46. But very soon, hostility with the Jews broke out so that Christians became more and more separated from the temple and the synagogue as we gather from the sermons and journeys of St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.33 Thus the Christians were forced—even from the earliest days— to have their own separate places of worship. St. Paul again tells us that in his Epistle to the Hebrews: "We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle cannot eat."34 The meaning is clearly allegorical as referring to the truth, participation and distinction of the two covenants which Paul has been at pains to draw throughout the Epistle. But at last we can see the clear distinction in Christianity in its own proper worship with, in and through Christ, the High Priest.

Christ, therefore, is the center of the Christian religion. This is evident in all of the Eucharistic symbols from the very earliest times. This is again borne out in all of the very oldest testimonies to the Eucharist.35 St. Hippolytus of Rome, whose treatise Traditio Apostolica goes as far back as the middle of the second century, bears certain witness to this fact. But how shall we conceive the notion of symbolical aspects applied to the altar as the figure of Christ Himself? It would seem an almost impossible task since some of the earliest Christian writers have openly said: "We have neither temple nor altar."36

We also know, however, that the early Christians took great pains to avoid any contamination with the pagan ritual rites and sacrifices which surrounded them on all sides37 In view of the texts of the didache and that of St. Justin which dates from the middle of the second century, we can say that Christians had no altar nor temple to pagan gods and, therefore, to false gods (in the words of the didache) and to false worship.38 This was true to the extent that the name priest was not applied to Christian priests (as the pagans), since Christianity had only one priest, Christ. They used instead the word presbyter (presbyteros) when referring to ministers of the Christian Church. The same tendency was found with regard to the appellation of the altar itself. Pagans called it ara and in antithesis to this, Christians referred to their altar as altare39 Possibly another factor in this regard was the counterbalance against the excessive Jewish and pagan materialization of the cult.40 It cannot enter into this small paper to develop the notion of a "Spiritual Sacrifice" then becoming very popular among certain stoic philosophers such as M. Aurelius, Cicero, and even Philo, the Jew and contemporary of Christ. The negation, then, "We have no altar" and the affirmation that, "Christ is the altar" are not contradictory. They both express in their own way the transcendence of the Christian altar.

It is certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the altar, even from the earliest times, was considered as the symbol or figure of Christ. The evidence we have is quite conclusive on this point. The very foundation of this theory is quite evident from the analysis of the Neo-Testamentary texts, which we have already seen. Christians had only to continue the tradition handed down to them from apostolic times. Indubitably, the altar on which was offered the Eucharist was symbolically identified with Christ. The earliest remnants of archaeology of the Christian altars show the Eucharistic symbols upon it.41 The five crosses carved on the mensa of the altar and its anointing with sacred chrism is a symbolical representation of the five wounds of Christ as well as His unction as High Priest at the Incarnation. These practices come down to us from at least the time of St. Gregory the Great. Earlier, when peace came to the Church, that the altar was clothed with linen and stripped and symbolically whipped with reeds is again a symbol of the passion of Christ. The words of consecration of an altar from sacramentaries as early as that of Gelasius in the eighth century all contain explicit prayers, which refer to Christ as symbolically represented by the altar. The very ancient tradition of only one altar in a Church is also a symbol of Christ, the one Priest and Victim.42 This tradition has remained unchanged in the Oriental Church.

But even more valuable than these archaeological findings is the very testimony of tradition itself in the words of the Fathers. In the words of De la Taille, their arguments would run as follows: "Since our sacrifice and victim is Christ Himself and since the priest is also Christ, a fortiori, the altar can only be Christ Himself."43 To be more precise, then, let us say that it is the humanity of Christ which is the altar as well as Priest and Victim, but insofar as this sacred humanity is personally and substantially united to the Divinity. It is this, in the final analysis, which makes Christ the one and essential mediator between God and man.

Thus the testimony of the Fathers is very conclusive in this regard. They do nothing else, as we have said, than to continue the apostolic tradition. The true altar, then, is Christ's humanity united to the Divinity and offered once and forever on the cross. By analogy, the Fathers reason to the symbolic representation of the material altar. What is foremost in their thoughts is the real altar—Christ's humanity—and by analogy, the place where it was daily offered, the altar. The texts are so numerous that it would be out of place here to give all the references. What we wish to do here is simply to give a few references from each apostolic period as incontestable proof of our main thesis.44

Our first witness is St. Ignatius of Antioch, which takes us back to as early as the year 110, which is in the apostolic period. Referring to Christ as the celestial altar he says: "All are directed to the one Jesus Christ who proceeded from the Father, who was one with Him . . . To Him must all go as to the one temple and one altar."45

A later testimony is that of St. Ireneus of Lyons who repeats this theme time and time again. Comparing Christ with the ancient dispensation he says: "He offered Himself that He might abolish the sacrifice of the old law while He offered for the whole world a living and more perfect victim; since He Himself was the victim, He the sacrifice, He the priest, He the altar."46

In the beginning of the third century, the learned Origen compares the souls of the martyrs to the old Jewish comparison of the celestial altar.47 "The souls of the martyrs are said to be placed under the (celestial) altar . . . there they aid in the divine sacrifices. . . . Blessed, therefore, are the souls, which have so followed Christ as Christ Himself walked. And therefore because they have followed Him in such a way, they have come to the very altar of God where Jesus Christ Himself is as the Pontiff of the future goods."48

In the next century we find such clear texts as those of St. Ephraem. His words are very clear in the representationalism of the altar: "O Blessed place, which has seen what no one else sees: the Lord as the true altar, priest, bread and chalice… He (Christ) is the altar and the lamb, the victim and sanctifier, the priest and the food."49 In the same place, he is even more explicit: "O Blessed place! In Thee the bread of the first born was broken; you were the first Church, the first altar of Christ."50 And again in one of his sermons he says: "The table was an altar for Him which He fully consecrated . . . The table was the sacred altar."51

St. Ambrose is perhaps the clearest of all. Speaking of the altar he says: "The formation of the body is the altar, and the body of Christ is in the altar,"52 and again: "What is the altar unless the figure of the body of Christ?"53 A prayer attributed to St. Ambrose (and which most probably was not composed by him) reads as follows: "High Priest and true Pontiff, Jesus Christ, who offered thyself to God the Father as a pure and immaculate victim on the altar of the cross for us."54 If not from St. Ambrose the prayer is still very old.

The Greek Fathers almost without exception make reference to Christ as the altar and the altar as symbolical of Christ. St. Cyril of Alexandria is very clear on this subject when he says in referring to the resurrected body of Christ: "He (Christ) is the altar . . . and High Priest."55 Eusebius is very definite on this point when he calls the altar by the surprising name of "the only begotten altar."56

St. Augustine is perhaps the most telling of either the Latin or the Greek Fathers in our present survey. Referring directly to the meaning of the temple and the altar he says: "We are to understand the temple and the altar as Christ Himself; the gold and the gift as the praises and sacrifices of prayer which we offer in Him and through Him; He is not given through them, rather these by Him are sanctified."57

Thus throughout the early patristic period we have a continuous tradition in recognizing Christ as the true altar and the material altar as symbolically representing Christ. This tradition was to continue very strongly throughout the Middle Ages, even to the time of St. Thomas himself. Such was John Belethus in his Ratione Divinorum Officiorum.58 "The body of Christ, the true altar, we believe to have been covered with His own water and blood on the cross." Hugo of St. Victor says the same thing.59 "The altar is Christ on which we offer not only the sacrifice of our good works, but also our prayers." And again: "The altar signifies Christ without whom there can be offered no gift to the Father that is pleasing to Him." A contemporary of St. Thomas, Durandus of Mende, tells us "The stone (altar) represents either Christ Himself (according to the teaching of the Apostle 'Jesus Christ Himself is the chief cornerstone') or His humanity."60 St. Thomas Aquinas himself was very familiar with this tradition when he says in his Summa Theologica: "The altar signifies Christ. The material altars are called altars by analogy with the unique altar of Christ. "61

This tradition has come down to us in all of the sacramentaries and pontificals, which we possess today. One of the clearest evidences of this tradition is a rubric in many pontificals which required that when an altar was consecrated, three consecrated hosts were sealed in it along with grains of incense as a sign of the union of altar and Christ's perpetual worship.62 This was the common practice in the West up until the thirteenth century inclusive of Rome. As late as the fifteenth century this rubric appears in the Vatican Pontifical: "Deficientibus reliquiis ponat Corpus Domini." 63

We have kept much of this symbolism in our liturgical books of today. In the pontifical at the ordination of Sub-Deacons we read: "The altar of Holy Church is Christ Himself, in the words of St. John, who in his apocalypse testifies that he saw the golden altar, standing before the throne, in whom and through whom the oblations of the faithful were offered to God the Father."

Finally, in the Roman Breviary itself on the feast of the dedication of the Basilica of the Holy Saviour we read: "Even though from apostolic times, places have been consecrated to God where the Christian people were accustomed to receiving the Eucharist: still, it was not for that reason that they were consecrated with solemn rite, neither was there, for that reason, an altar erected there in title—which altar, covered with chrism, expressed the figure of our Lord Jesus Christ who is our altar, Victim and Priest."64

This tradition explains so well the many reverences and venerations paid to the altar. It is certainly not due to the relics of the martyrs contained in it, since the altar existed for hundreds of years before their obligatory introduction either into or under the altar. The kiss, for example, is symbolic for Christ whom the altar represents;65 the stripping of the altar on Good Friday while the Priest recites Psalm 21—the very prayer of Christ on the cross—is symbolic of Christ's passion; the wiping of the altar at its consecration, the five crosses as signs of Christ's wounds, the consecration with chrism, whose name in Greek (Xristos) was always associated with Christ by the early Christians, and finally the many prayers of consecration of an altar recited by the consecrating Bishop, are only further proof that the altar is the figure and symbol of Christ Himself.


Our historical study has been a short one, but sufficiently long enough to show us the basic meaning of the Christian altar, which is the image of Christ. This theology of the altar had its beginning as far back as the Old Testament with its imperfect and even materialistic ritual and worship. The New Testament showed us the only true worship and sacrifice, which was performed once and for all by the person of the Word Incarnate. His humanity substantially united to His divinity is the instrumental cause of salvation in the words of St. Paul in his epistle to the Eph. 2:14-18:

For He is our peace—He who from two peoples has made but one, destroying the barrier which separated them, suppressing in His flesh hate, making void the law of commandments contained in decrees in order to create in His person the two in one new man; and reconciling both to God in one body by the cross, He killed hate. And, coming, He preached peace to you who were afar off, and peace to them who were nigh. For by Him we both have access to the Father in one Spirit.

The Jewish dispensation is over, fulfilled by the perfect sacrifice of Christ who now united all to Himself. Christians are, therefore, the new Israel and Christ their new Moses and perfect Mediator. This tradition of the one Priest, the one Victim, and altar was kept by the early Christians in their new Eucharistic worship, which was Christ. Symbolically, therefore, it was applied, from the very first, to the place of the sacrifice of the new Israel—the altar.

Peter Riga

St. John Vianney Seminary
East Aurora, N.Y.


1 G. Thils, Orientations de la Theologie (Louvain, 1958), p. 33.

2 Cf. J. Prichard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton University Press, 1955).

3 R. De Vaux, Les Institutions de l’Ancien Testament, II (Paris, 1960), p. 108; Prichard, op. cit., 331 et passim; R. Wooley, Ur of the Caldees

(Penguin Books, 1955), 200; W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore, 1942).

4 A. Van Hoonacker, "De Legibus Circa Altaria," De Compositione Literaria et de Origine Mosaica Hexateuchi (Bruxelles, 1949), p. 33; R. De Vaux, op. cit., 107-115.

5 It is curious to note that from Bb and P, the altar that existed in the temple was a bronze altar. In the first temple of Solomon (960 BC) there was a bronze altar, but after the post-exilic reconstruction of Aggeus and Zacharias (420 BC), the altar was made of stone, thereby showing that it no longer followed the prescriptions of Bb and P regarding the bronze altar. The third temple of Herod was also made of stone.

6 De Vaux, op. cit., 104. It is probably here that we must look for the true signification of the altar being on a higher place than the rest of the sanctuary. It is a well-known fact that much of the Christian externals as regards many of its manifestations is heavily dependent upon the Jewish tradition, who, for the most part, were the majority of the first Christians. Cf. L. Cerfaux, L'Apocalypse de Jean lue aux Chretiens (Paris, 1955), 10-65. It is a fundamental rule of exegesis that much of our neo-testamentary doctrine has come down to us in Jewish and Old Testament Cadres. Cf. L. Cerfaux, The Church in the Theology of St. Paul (New York, 1959), 9-82, where Msgr. Cerfaux shows the fundamental Jewish background of the Apostle Paul. See also Cerfaux's Christ in the Theology of St. Paul (New York, 1959) and The Four Gospels (Westminster, Md., 1960).

7 Joseph Dheilly, The Prophets, 147-155; S. L. Driver, Joel and Amos, 55-78; Sainte Bible de Pirot, V, X-XXV; R. Chaine, Introduction a la Lecture des Prophetes (Paris, 1950), 8-80; G. Kuhl, Israels Propheten (Berne-Munich, 1957); A. Robert, A. Feuillet, Introduction a la Bible, I, 465-582; J. Coppens, Les Douze Petits Prophetes (Bruges, 1949); A. Neher, L’Essence de Prophetisme (Paris, 1855). Also see corresponding fascicules in La Sainte Bible de Jerusalem, 1948-1954.

8 Is. 65:11; Dan. 14:1-22.

9 Lev. 6:5; 2 Mac. 1:6; Ex. 27:20; Lev. 24:2.

10 Y. Congar, Le Mystere du Temple (Paris, 1958), 104-126.

11 Gen. 12:7; 26:4.

12 Ex. 29:36; Lev. 8:15; 16:18. And Van Hoonacker, op. cit., 37-41.

13 L. Cerfaux, J. Dupont, Les Actes des Apotres, (Paris, 1953). This is an extraordinary study of the early Formgeschichte of the primitive Christian community.

14 Cerfaux, Dupont, op. cit., 135-140; J. Dupont, Le Probleme du Livre des Actes (Bruges, 1960), 52-54; La Sainte Bible, by J. Renie, XI, 207-217; Bucksel in Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament, II, under article "Acten"; L. Cerfaux, La Communaute Apostolique (Paris, 1952), 25-42; Robert-Feuillet, Introduction a la Bible, II (Paris, 1959), 486.

15 Cerfaux, The Church in the Theology of St. Paul, 68.

16 The problem is a complicated one and experts are by no means in agreement as to the details of this complicated synoptic problem. We by no means wish to pronounce on the findings of biblical experts but simply to recall here what all agree upon: some form of Proto-Matthew precedes that of our canonical Mark and Matthew. Cf. Vaganay, Le Probleme Synoptique (Paris, 1956); Cerfaux, Receuil Cerfaux, I, 280; E. Massaux, Influence de Saint Matthieu (Paris, Bruxelles, 1952); P. Benoit, L’Evangile selon S. Matthieu (Paris, 1953), 13-30; A. Durand, Evangile Selon Saint Matthieu (Paris, 1959), iv-xiv; B. C. Butler, The Originality of St. Matthew (Cambridge, 1951); A. Huck, Synopse der drei ersten Evangelien (Tubingen, 1922).

17 Y. Congar, op. cit., 145-147, It is interesting to note the striking concordance among the Fathers in this regard and how they identify the sacred structure of the sanctuary with Christ's body and make of it both altar and temple. Cf. E. C. Selwyn, The First Epistle of St. Peter (London, 1947), 163; L'Evangile Selon S. Jean by D. Mollat in La Sainte Bible de Jerusalem, 78.

18 Even radicals such as R. Bultmann recognize this. It is common knowledge how accurate and helpful are his commentaries on the texts of the New Testament but they are essentially vitiated by his pre-conceived philosophic prejudices. Cf. R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (London, 1955-56). Also J. Malvez, Interpretation de R. Bultmann, (Paris, 1955).

19 This whole thesis of God's word being profoundly engaged in human thought is brought out well by Jean Levie, La Bible: Parole Humaine et Message de Dieu (Paris-Louvain, 1958). The most interesting chapter "L'Ecriture Sainte, Parole d'Homme" originally appeared in two articles of the Nouvelle Revue Theologique for 1957. This whole tendency stemming from the Scriptures was beautifully applied by the earliest Christians to the notion of their material altar on which was offered the only true sacrifice pleasing to God. The unanimity of all early tradition on this

point assures us that the earliest Christians did nothing else but continue and develop this theme of St. John (and of the whole of the New Testament) on the spiritual sacrifice of Christ being now and forever the sacred humanity of Christ.

20 The Greek here refers to the most sacred part of the temple with its Holy of Holies where Iahwe dwelt, A variant reading in the most ancient texts (witness; Tatian, Iraeneus, Tertullian, Origen) reads simply: "He spoke of His body," But "Sanctuary" is contained in our best Greek texts.

21 Cf. John 3:9; 4:15; 6:26; 7:27: 8:57; 9:1-41; 9:39 etc. Sometimes it is the disciples themselves who are blind but with this essential difference: Not understanding fully—or not even at all—they have faith in Christ who tells them it is so: cf. the response of St. Peter after the discourse on the Eucharist and the washing of the feet: John 6:68; 12:8. The Jews (in the pejorative way St. John uses this term) "Walk no more with Him" because "This is a hard saying,"

22 Matt. 21:12 ff.; Mk. 11:15 ff.; Lk. 19:45 ff.

23 This chronological problem cannot be solved by strict historical event. We must look to "religious history" as envisioned by St. John.

24 For development of this theme, see Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament, under variants of emnethesan.

25 Of our canonical scriptures at least.

26 Cerfaux, op. cit., 38.

27 Strack-Billerbeck, I, 1003; J. Bonsirven, Le Judaisme Palestinien au Temps de Jesus Christ, I (Paris, 1930), 400.

28 Cerfaux, L'Apocalypse lue aux Premiers Chretiens, 189.

29 A. Gelin, "La question des 'relectures' bibliques a l'interieur d'une tradition vivante," Sacra Pagina, I, 303-315.

30 For a well-developed chapter on this whole section, see Congar, op. cit., 158-180. For patristic insights in this problem, see Jean Bauer, "L'exegese patristique creatrice des symboles," Sacra Pagina I, 180-186.

31 For extra biblical comparisons, se J. C. Iturre, "Jersualem y el Templo del Senor en los Manuscriptos de Qumran y el Nuevo Testamento," Sacra Pagina, II, 28-35.

32 For this section see: M. Righetti, Historia de la Liturgia, 452-472; E. De Fleury, La Messe, Etudes Archeologiques sur ses Monuments, 1, 93; Braun, Der Christliche Altar, I, 54; P. Kirsch, Le Catacombe Romane, 25; Wieland, Mensa und Confessio, p. 147; Van Der Meer, Atlas of Western Civilization (New York, 1954); also his Atlas of the Early Christian World (New York, 1958); A. Freitag, Historische Werdatlas van het Christendon (Heideland, 1959); A. M. Roguet, "Autel" in Maison Dieu (4th Trimester, 1960), 96-106; "Autel" in DACL, I, part II, col. 3155-3189.

33 Acts 2:47 actually shows that at first the Christians had the favor of the Jews. Then hostility grows, Cf. in Acts the arrest of John and Peter and their response in 4:1-8; the prayers of persecution, 4:24; actual imprisonment in 5:17 and physical harm in 5:40; the murder of Stephen, 7:54-60; then begins the progressive preaching of Paul and his own treatment at the hands of the Jews: 9:23; 13:45; 14:2; 14:19; etc. We note a progressive rejection of the Jews as God's people and elect. Cf. Rom. 11:13-23; I Thess. 2:13-16.

34 Heb. 13:10. On the perfection of Christ's priesthood and sacrifice and its supplantation of the Jewish cult, cf. Spicq, L'Epitre aux Hebreux, I (Paris, 1952), 266-329.

35 Cf. J. Quasten, Monumenta Eucharistica et Liturgica Vetustissima, fasciculus VII, Pars I, Bonnae Sumptibus Petri Hanstein, 1935, 1-33.

36 St. Iraeneus states this openly in his Contra Haereses, I, II, c. XVIII, no. 6. (MPG, VII, 1029); J. A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, I, 49.

37 This was not new. St. Paul had to warn the Christians at Corinth of such dangers and counsels prudence. Cf. I Cor. 10:14-33. The earliest epistles and writings of the Apostolic Fathers were in this same line. (Cf. the Didache 6:1-3: "As for meats, take what you can, but absolutely abstain from meats offered to idols for it is a cult to dead gods.") J. P. Audet, La Didache, Instructions des Apotres (Paris, 1958), 350-356. Also see the letter of Barnabas.

38 See the notion of antithesis present in St. Justin between Christian worship and the cult of Mithra, Apologia I, c. 66, 20 as cited in J. Quasten, op. cit., 18. The text of Tatian saying that Christians have no altar can be dismissed as he was at pains to deny any relation whatever with paganism. This method is in contrast with that of St. Justin.

39 St. Cyprian as early as 245-258 uses only altare. Cf. Epist. XL, n. 5, (MPL, IV, 336, 398); St. Ambrose, De Virginitate, XVIII, n. 119 (MPL, XVI, 297). One exception is Tertullian, De Oratione, c. XIX (MPL, I, 1182). Altare, then, becomes the official Christian word with reference to the altar.

40 We have seen that for the New Testament writers the material temple with its sacrifices gives way to the glorified body of Christ. Christ is the spiritual worship of Christians where they worship God in "spirit and in truth." John 4:21.

41 See the many altars as represented in DACL, Cols. 3155-3189, with their Eucharistic symbols; also Wieland, Mensa und Confessio, I, 147 ff„ for other examples.

42 This tradition is certain. Although there were private masses in the catacombs very early from the third century, this custom was not widespread. It started to spread toward the beginning of the Middle Ages when priests become very plentiful and people, having lost most of the sense of the liturgy, wanted private masses for the dead. Cf. St. Ignatius, Ad Philipp, IV, 1: "There is only one Eucharist, one altar, as there is only one Bishop." We see that as early as St. Gregory the Great, relics were sent for the consecration of thirteen altars. Cf. MPL, LXXVII, 834.

43 M. de la Taille, Mysterium Fidei, elucidatio XIII, as cited in Roguet, art. cit., p. 100. "De Christo ut altari aeterno." D. poses the problem in double form: "Is Christ an altar?" and "Is He an altar after His Resurrection?" In this same line of thought, see M. J. Scheeben, Handbuch der Katholischen Dogmatik, III, 432.

44 For further evidence consult Leclercq's article on the altar in DACL as well as de la Taille, op. cit., 153-165, One will find here a complete bibliography and references.

45 Ad. Magnes. 7. Edition of Funk, Apostolic Fathers, 236.

46 Adver. Haers. 55, 4 (MPG, 41, 980).

47 To understand this Oriental imagery so foreign to the Western mind, we must have recourse to Apoc. 6:9. In apocalyptical literature—for we are in the realm of Jewish ancient literature—there was in heaven a temple of which the one on earth was but an imperfect representation. In this temple, before the throne of God, one altar. In this type of literature, it was normal to picture the salvation of the Jews as being buried under the altar in the temple of Jerusalem. It is with this imagery in mind that Origen speaks of the altar and the Christian martyrs,

48 In Judic., from 7, n. 2. (MPG, XII, 891).

49 Hymnus de Crucifixione Tertius, Str. 10, Ed. Lamy, I, 660.

50 Ibid., Str. 12, 660-662.

51 Serm. ii in Hebdomadam Sanctam, n. 8. Ed. Lamy, I, 384-386.

52 De Sacra. 1, 4, c. 2, n. 7.

53 Ibid., 1, 5, c. 2, n. 7.

54 C. Trid., sess. 22, Cap. 1, DB. 938, Also in H. J. Schroeder, Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (St. Louis, 1955), 144-159. One may cite along these lines the new preface for the feast of Christ, the King.

55 De Oratione in Spiritu et Veritate (MPG, LXVIII, 596-604).

56 Hist. Ecc., X, c. 4 (MPG, XX, 879).

57 Quaest. Evang., lib. 1, 34 (MPL, XXXV, 1329).

58 C. 104 (MPL, CCII, 109).

59 MPL, CLXXVII, 902.

60 Rationale, I, c. 7, n. 27.

61 Summa Theologica, III, q. 33, art. 3, ad 5.

62 Cf. Pontificals of Noyon and York.

63 Lat„ 4744.

64 Fourth lesson for the feast.

65 The rubric, which requires that the Priest kiss the altar while praying "quorum reliquiae hic sunt" dates only from the eleventh century. In former pontificals and rubrics, the whole prayer was recited before ascending the altar; then the kiss was given to the altar. Also see kisses of altar without any prayer on Candlemas, Ash Wednesday, and Palm Sunday.

© The American Ecclesiastical Review, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C.

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