Why Is Our Altar Against The Wall?

         Sacrifice, priesthood, and the cause of the decline of the modern church

       When  people enter the sanctuary of the St. George’s and St. Matthew’s church,  I’m sure that many, if not all who have no memory of what Anglican (Episcopal) and Catholic churches were like before the 1960s, wonder why the altar is against the wall when practically every other church has a “free–standing” altar? And when the service begins, I’m sure that many also wonder, “Why does the priest turn his back towards us? Why doesn’t he face the congregation like all the other priests do? “

        That such questions are even asked reveals the depth of the crisis facing a religion that is in danger of severing all links to its history and orthodoxy.  Henry James once compared modern men and women entering a gothic cathedral to cats and dogs in a library looking up at stacks of books, having no idea what a library is or what to do with a book. And he made that observation over a hundred years ago. The reasons for this vast ignorance among Christians in the basic dogmas of their religion and the relation of those dogmas to church architecture, are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that all of us who have grown up in the age of secularism are suffering because of it.  

       The triumph of secularism accounts, in part, for the crisis of faith afflicting the church today. But the greater fault lies with the “free-standing “altar itself. Beginning in the 1960s the Catholic churches and the Anglican (Episcopal) churches began introducing free-standing altars. Today almost every church uses one. Therefore, all who are under age fifty have only known the free-standing altar. It seems” traditional” to them and normal. They cannot see what a novelty the free-standing altar is and how destructive of the faith it is. So, when you combine the influence of the free-standing altar with the indifference towards Christian orthodoxy pervasive in the secular society you have a recipe for disaster, a disaster that has now come upon the churches in America in full force.

        Let’s begin our discussion of the altar by observing something; a detail that is not unimportant. The altar in our church is not positioned on just any wall. It is on the east wall. It is positioned on the east wall for a reason; the reason being that Christians, from the beginning, have always turned to face east for prayer. The Jews turn to face Jerusalem. Moslems bow in the direction of Mecca. Christians traditionally turn to the east for prayer. Why is that? There are several reasons for this. The sun rises in the east; the sunrise is symbolic of Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning. By facing eastward for prayer, we put our attention where it belongs: on the triumph of Christ over the grave and on the great hope He brings to all humankind.  Christ has brought hope to the earth; in Him it is always a new day.  The procession, which begins the liturgy, moves from west to east. This is reminiscent of Moses leading the Hebrews from Egypt to the Promised Land in the east. But more so it represents Christ leading His church to Heaven’s gate which is to the east of Eden (Gen3.24), a gate that was closed to all because of Adam’s sin but now is open to us because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice.  The Lord who ascended to the east (Ps. 67.34; Zech 14.4), will come again in glory from the east (Ezek. 43.4; Mt.24.27; Acts 1.11). Therefore, Christians normally turn east to pray in faithful anticipation of Christ’s return in glory. It can easily be established by multiple references in the literature of the early church and in early Christian art and architecture that this was the custom from the beginning. And thus, as soon as Christians were allowed to build churches, it became the norm for churches to be built with the apse at the east end and the high altar, the altar used for the Sunday mass or liturgy, to be set against the east wall.   

          That is an important detail, but it does not fully answer our question. “Why is the altar against the wall and why does the priest turn his back to us? Or, why is the altar not free-standing, and why doesn’t the priest stand behind it facing the congregation? In that case the congregation would still be facing east even if the priest isn’t. What’s wrong with that?”

        I’ll answer that question with another question: “What is an altar and what is it used for?” An altar is a sacred object on which a sacrifice is made. Worship in ancient religions, pagan and Jewish alike, involved the priest offering various sacrifices to God on an altar. In ancient Israel those sacrifices could be of animals or birds slaughtered and burned or of grains and fruits burned (Lev. 1-9). The sacrificial victim would be immolated on the altar, totally destroyed as a symbolic way of offering something precious to the worshipper to God. The thing offered to God would be determined by the occasion; a dove might be required on one occasion a bull on another (Lk. 2.23-24; Lev. 16-17.11). But always the priest, standing before the altar, would offer up the sacrifice to God on behalf of the people. The offering was made to God, facing God. The priest and people alike would face God when offering a sacrifice. They would together do this out of respect for God since God is the one to whom worship is due, the one to whom the sacrifice was being made.

        In worship symbolism is important. The position of the altar against the wall speaks volumes about what we believe about God and what we believe worship is. When the priest stands before the altar offering a sacrifice, his back is turned to the congregation because he and the congregation are together facing God. Their worship is directed not to the congregation, but to God who is in Heaven beyond, over, and above us. The priest and people alike are joined in looking up to God who is transcendent and infinitely greater than we are. Like Moses climbing up Mt. Sinai to meet God as the people looked on in fear and trembling unable to approach the holy mountain ( Ex.19. 7-25), so the congregation in worship comes  humbly into the presence of Almighty God who is looking down on us from above. The priest leads the congregation in approaching God and, therefore, his back is turned to the congregation only incidentally as the leader of a delegation petitioning a king and pleading for clemency would necessarily have his back turned to the rest of the delegation. The symbolic point is that the priest and people alike are all humbly facing God on his throne, God who is infinitely greater than we are. So the altar is “against the wall” because there is no reason whatsoever for the priest to be behind it.     

        Now, with all due respect, those who prefer a free-standing altar with the priest standing behind it facing the people do so with only the loftiest of motives. They believe that the free-standing altar is a restoration of an ancient custom that was lost in the dark ages; that originally Christians gathered around a table as the disciples did, or so they imagine, at the last supper, with Christ in the middle, to have a “love feast” (Jude 12) or “the Lord’s super” (1Cor. 11.20) as it was called. This meal, which was a memorial to Christ’s death (1Cor. 11.26), put the focus on the community in which the Holy Spirit is present and manifest in love. The free- standing altar that allows the priest to stand behind it facing the people emphasizes Christ’s promise “where two or more are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them” (Mt.18.20). In this case, the celebrant stands within the congregation offering up to God a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in memory of Jesus who is present in the midst of his church manifesting his love among the members of the congregation.  That sounds good. Love is important. Community is important and Christ dwells in his church. All of that is true. There’s only one problem with it. The free-standing altar was never the ancient custom. Christian priests have always stood before the altar offering up a sacrifice to God on behalf of the people. They were never mere “celebrants” at a meal standing behind a table.   

       That is why Catholic, Anglican (Episcopal), and Orthodox clergy are called “priests” and not just “ministers,” “preachers” or “pastors.”  Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox are ordained to the priesthood. They function as pastors and preachers but they are priests whose first duty is to offer up the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the altar. They are “priests” because they are ordained to share in Christ’s eternal priesthood. It was established by prophecy that Christ would be “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps.110.4; Heb.5.5–6; 7.17). Melchizedek was a priest of divine origin who blessed Abraham by offering  a sacrifice of bread and wine (Gen.14.18). By taking the bread and wine at the last supper and offering them up to God, Christ identified himself completely with Melchizedek, thereby fulfilling that prophecy from the Psalm. By commanding his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me,” he ordained them to the same priesthood as himself. Christians have continued the priesthood of Melchizedek ever since, and the Christian priests have as their first duty to offer up the bread and the wine, which become by their consecration on the altar the visible signs of Christ’s perfect sacrifice.

      Christ’s perfect sacrifice was a singular event that once and for all reconciled sinful humanity to the Holy God opening the way for mortal men and women to be reunited to their Heavenly Father. The sacrifice of Christ cannot be repeated. But God has enabled us to share directly in the benefits of His perfect sacrifice. The sacrifice Christ made on the cross was bloody and gruesome. The sacrifice that he enables his priests to make on the altar is the same sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, but it is clean. In this manner the prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled. Malachi foresaw the day when Christ’s perfect sacrifice would be offered daily all around the world, not only in Jerusalem where Christ died, but in all nations: “For from the rising of the sun even to the going down, my name is great among the Gentiles, and in every place there is sacrifice, and there is offered to my name a clean oblation” (Mal. 1.11.) The Holy Eucharist is that “clean oblation.” It is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross “offered once for all, for the sins of the whole world” (Heb.7.27; 1 John 2.2), but because it is made of the bread and wine it is “clean.” It is not merely symbolic. It is a sacrament: a symbol, in this case bread and wine that conveys the very thing it signifies: the body and blood of Christ offered on the cross for our sins. In this way Christ’s promise is fulfilled: “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you” (Jn.6.53). The bread and wine offered by the priest on the altar become what Christ made them at the last supper: his actual flesh and blood, the food and drink of eternal life. In this way we literally share in Christ’s eternal life; having been united with him in his death on the cross we are assured of sharing in his glorious resurrection.

       That explains why the priest stands before the altar, facing east, facing God to whom the perfect sacrifice is offered and that further explains why incidentally his back is to the congregation. (Let me just add that in the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox churches, the consecration is done by the priests behind a screen (an iconostasis). The congregation is not permitted to even see the sacred event, nor hear the prayers of the priests at the altar. The Orthodox will never change the Divine Liturgy that has been in use with little change from the start). But that begs the question: why have almost all the churches in the West abandoned their traditional altars in favor of a free-standing altar? Why have priests stopped offering the sacrifice to God and offered it instead to the people? Well, God is transcendent and beyond us but God in Christ is also immanent and among us. “The kingdom of God is among you “(Lk.17.20-21) Jesus said, in reference to himself. And again he promised, “I am with you always even to the end of the age” (Mt.28.20). By standing behind the altar and facing the people, the priest draws attention to Christ who is among us. So, the free-standing altar also has powerful symbolic value that sends an important message: we need to care about the other people in the congregation. Our salvation depends not just on our humble devotion to our transcendent Lord but also on our devotion to the incarnate Lord whom we encounter here and now in our fellow baptized Christians: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (Mt.10. 42). So the free-standing altar with the priest behind it facing the people sends a powerful message: God is among us here and now and we honor him by the love we show for one another.

       There’s no arguing with that message. That is the gospel. But, and this is a big “but," it is not the tradition of the church to have a free-standing altar. Why? Because the work of the priest is to offer up the perfect sacrifice which is “the real presence” of the crucified Lord who offers his body and blood to us in the Blessed Sacrament as real food and drink for our soul’s salvation. The real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest gift that Christ has given his church to which nothing on earth compares; “the pearl of inestimable value” (Mt.13.44-45) that Christ taught us to seek. The most important thing in life is to find it and keep it. Having found it the church has labored from the beginning to keep it and to pass it on from one generation to the next as a priceless inheritance.

       The real presence of Christ, I would add, is what the red lamp, called the sanctuary candle, set beside the altar signifies. This custom has its origin in the lamp that God ordered Moses to set by the altar in the tent of meeting to signify the presence of the manna kept there (Ex.25.30). It alerts us that the consecrated host,  “the living bread come down from heaven” (John 6.51) as Jesus called himself, is kept or reserved in the tabernacle, that is the box on the altar. We bow or genuflect towards the altar because Christ crucified for us is really present there in the consecrated host in the tabernacle. That is another reason why the priest and people alike traditionally face the altar when offering the sacrifice. It is both irreverent and contradictory of what we believe the sacrament is to do otherwise.

       Those who argue for a free-standing altar may object to this criticism by saying that Christ’s real presence among us does not depend on the position of the altar or on whether the priest stands before it or behind it. But it does. Leonardo DaVinci’s painting of the Last Supper shows Jesus seated in the middle of the table as was the custom at Italian festivals during the Renaissance. The most important person in those days sat in the middle. But DaVinci was an artistic genius doing something imaginative for his Renaissance audience. He wasn’t seeking historical accuracy. Whereas, all of the earliest works depicting the last supper show Jesus seated at the far left of the table, with the disciples behind him looking on as he elevates the host. That was the custom in Jerusalem at the time Jesus lived. The most important person sat at the far left of the table. In other words, the tradition of the priest elevating the host while the congregation looks on behind him began with Christ himself. Who are we to change that? Who would want to?

       The person who wanted to and first did change that was an angry German monk named Martin Luther. The fact that many followed him in this rebellion and that those who prefer a free-standing altar have become the majority, does not change the fact that those who adopt the free-standing altar with the priest standing facing the people are rejecting a tradition established by Christ and cherished by his apostles for a novelty invented by an unhappy 16th-century German monk.

       Is God pleased with us for doing this? Well, since the Catholic and Anglican (Episcopal) churches began using the free-standing altar in the 1960’s church attendance has declined dramatically across the board while atheism grows. And remember, we have seen atheism up close in the Nazi movement and in the Communist world revolution. Modern atheism is directly responsible for the worst evils in human history. And still it grows? What kind of madness it that? Is God trying to tell us something? I think that the facts speak for themselves. The day that the church returns to using an altar against the east wall with the priest standing before it is the day that the advance of atheism will stop. (Our Lady of Fatima told us as much).  Christianity will then begin to do for our liberal and secular culture what it did to ancient Rome, transform this neo-pagan rabble of confused and sex-obsessed lost souls into a God-fearing civilization. The real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament will do it. But for that to happen, the church must reclaim its most sacred tradition.

Fr. Jansen String

The Feast of Pentecost 2018

                                               Suggested Reading:

The Mass of the Early Christians by Mike Aquillina

Pope Paul’s New Mass by Michael Davies

The Reform of the Roman Liturgy by Klaus Gamber

The Latin Mass Explained by George Moorman