The Altar in Catholic Liturgy
The Catholic Altar
Significance of the Altar
The Catholic altar is both a sacrificial altar, and a table for a communal meal. In Jesus’s time, altars where animal sacrifices took place as atonement for sin were common under Jewish norms and traditions. The passion of Christ was the ultimate sacrifice, to atone for the sin of mankind. Therefore, the Christ’s sacrifice is enacted each Mass at an altar. The altar is also a table because we are all “called to the Lord’s supper.” The sense of the Catholic altar as a table calls to mind the last supper and the tables around which the early Christians celebrated the Eucharist, as well as the fact that we as a faithful community are sharing in the saving meal.
From the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):
“The altar on which the Sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs is also the table of the Lord to which the People of God is called together to participate in the Mass, as well as the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist.” ( # 296)
The altar is traditionally made of stone, calling to mind Christ as the living cornerstone of the Catholic faith:
“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20)
“Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God's sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: "Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and
precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 1 Peter 2:4-6)
However, though the traditional stone is preferred, the altar in churches in the United States may be made of a durable, solid wood:
It is appropriate to have a fixed altar in every church, since it more clearly and permanently signifies Christ Jesus, the living stone. In other places set aside for sacred celebrations, the altar may be movable.
In keeping with the Church's traditional practice and the altar's symbolism, the table of a fixed altar is to be of stone and indeed of natural stone. In the dioceses of the United States of America, however, wood which is worthy, solid, and well-crafted may be used, provided that the altar is structurally immobile. The supports or base for upholding the table, however, may be made of any sort of material, provided it is worthy and solid. (GIRM, #298,301)
History of the Altar
The Christian altar is one of the earliest elements of the liturgy. In the first years when Christianity was illegal, the Eucharist was typically celebrated in the homes of the faithful. The altar could have been the dinner table in the home or the wooden chest in which a bishop would carry needed materials for celebrating the Eucharist from place to place.
Fixed altars made of stone became prevalent when Constantine established that Christianity would no longer be illegal and more churches were erected for the purpose of celebrating the Mass. Wood altars were still used for a time, as were metal altars. However, with time preference was given to stone because it lasted better than wood and metal and was not subject to the decay those materials were. In 517, the provincial council of Epeaune in France decreed that the altar was to be made of stone. However, this was a provincial decree only and wooden altars were not uncommon even through the 9th century; after that century wooden altars were not often seen in the Latin churches. Wooden altars remain common in the Greek Church to this day.
Early altars were not placed against walls, but set apart so that the bishop or priests would stand facing the people. Around the 5th century, it became popular for the altar to face the East or be set against a wall. The priest would celebrate the Mass facing east, and the people would face East with him, symbolic of looking toward Christ as the Dawn. In the Middle Ages, the altar ceased to resemble the table of the early Church. Altars of Medieval times began to be designed very ornately, and were adorned with statues, relics, and paintings, and of course the tabernacle. In the mid-20th century, in many countries, the altar was moved away from the wall again, with the priest celebrating the Mass facing the people.
Catholic altars today are often stone, though as mentioned above, an altar made of quality wood is permitted. In most churches in the U.S. the altar is set apart from the wall, so that the celebrant faces the congregation. The current regulations on the altar in the United States can be read in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, chapter 5.