BLS 56-60 examines the altar. We start today with a recounting of church teaching on what an altar is:
§ 56 § At the Eucharist, the liturgical assembly celebrates the ritual sacrificial meal that recalls and makes present Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, proclaiming “the death of the Lord until he comes.”(1 Cor 11:26; cf. Rev 19:9) The altar is “the center of thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes”(GIRM 296) and the point around which the other rites are in some manner arrayed.(Mediator Dei 21) Since the Church teaches that “the altar is Christ,”(RDCA IV, 4) its composition should reflect the nobility, beauty, strength, and simplicity of the One it represents. In new churches there is to be only one altar so that it “signifies to the assembly of the faithful one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.”(GIRM 303)
The New Testament is cited: Paul’s recounting of the Last Supper narrative as well as the Wedding Canticle of the Lamb.
The full citation from GIRM 296: “At the altar the sacrifice of the cross is made present under sacramental signs. It is also the table of the Lord, and the people of God are called together to share in it. The altar is, as well, the center of the thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes.” This is more than a passing nod to the meal versus sacrifice camps. It is about the entire Paschal Mystery, which the US bishops sum up well enough in the words, “Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.”
The Mediator Dei citation is interesting, but less convincing to me. Not that I would deny the centrality of the Eucharist, but only note that the sacraments don’t always take place physically around an altar. Sometimes they are lawful, even needful outside the four walls. Baptism and Eucharist form an axis in the church. The Eucharist, as is clear in the adult rites, is the culmination of Baptism. That orientation is clearer in the reformed rites than in Pope Pius XII’s worthy encyclical.
“The altar is Christ”–we read of this in our recent examination of the Rite of Dedication of a Church and Altar.
One altar for new churches–that’s pretty authoritative.
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