Christians in many worshiping traditions use a variety of ritual actions to indicate their reverence for the worship of God and participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This article explains what these actions of reverence look like and how the architectural design of the sacramental symbols can enhance their meaning.
We were well trained from our earliest childhood and had been so for countless generations. When we entered God’s House, after having made the sign of the cross with holy water, we genuflected toward the tabernacle (on or above the main altar) and then entered a pew where we knelt in prayer. In many cases, the ritual had become perfunctory, but we knew the etiquette of entrance into God’s presence. Whether coming into church for private prayer or Mass, we knew how to get started. We knew that the genuflection was a special mark of honor and greeting to Christ sacramentally present in the tabernacle.
Things have changed. Now Roman Catholics entering new and/or renovated worship spaces seem at a loss as they perceive that the tabernacle, the central focus of liturgical etiquette in the experience of Catholics more than 30 years old, has been relocated within or outside the main worship space. The altar, with the ambo and presider’s chair, has replaced the tabernacle as the visual center of the worship space. Rarely do we see, however, a new etiquette of entrance consonant with this rearrangement. It would seem that the sacramental presence of Christ in the tabernacle was so central to Catholic piety that its absence causes ritual confusion.
The confusion is a testimony to the loss of an ancient element of popular Catholic spirituality—devotion to the altar. The restoration of the altar to its former architectural prominence is not an exercise in archaeology. It is an attempt to give physical expression to the centrality of eucharistic celebration in our common life. The altar is not itself the center but is one of the elements which makes the eucharistic act possible.
The reformed Roman Sacramentary bears witness to that more ancient reverence for the altar which was once so integral to the piety of all the baptized. The Sacramentary directs the presider at the Eucharist to reverence the altar as part of the introductory rite. This the priest does by first bowing before the altar, then approaching it and kissing it. He also has the option of incensing the Holy Table. This is an etiquette of greeting. The Table of the Lord is perceived to be a symbol of Christ who is himself altar, victim and priest, table of fellowship, food, and drink, host and fellow guest.
Just as the etiquette of the dinner party continues through the event and does not come to end with the rituals of entry and greeting, so the ritual directives of the Roman rite reveal “good manners” which bear witness to a deep altar spirituality. Whatever is placed on the Lord’s Table is set aside exclusively for God’s service. The Scriptures may be placed there until borne in honor to the ambo for the liturgy of the Word. During the preparation of the gifts, the deacon assists the priest in setting upon the altar in clarity and simplicity the bread and wine over which the eucharistic prayer shall be proclaimed. The text of that prayer is the only object to be placed on the altar with the bread and wine.
What about an altar etiquette for all the baptized? In fact, the presider models manners for all the congregation. Just as we reverence Christ present in the tabernacle, so the tradition calls us to reverence Christ’s Table, the locus of the eucharistic place of identification between Christ’s act of self-offering and our daily Christian service.
Look at the altar. Bow deeply and deliberately to it before taking your place in the congregation. This is an act of attending to the presence of the One who has called us together to hear his Word and share his flesh and blood. It is good liturgical manners. It is a way for the whole person (body and spirit) to enter into contemplative prayer.
The ritual etiquette elaborates a spirituality:
- This Table is honored by being allowed to stand free and unencumbered. Allowing space is an act of hospitality. The altar is to be allowed its space so that it may be an instrument of liturgical hospitality for the community.
- This Table is honored by being in harmony with the other appointments which enable our worship. If sacraments are “visible words,” then the altar must allow the table of God’s Word, the ambo, its space and not be out of balance or in conflict with it or the presider’s chair. Much less should the size, shape, or visual impact of the Lord’s Table ever dwarf the presider and/or other ministers. The altar, like good ritual music, serves the church’s ritual prayer; it does not draw undue attention to itself.
- This Table is honored by the vesting which celebrates its crucial role in our worship. Nothing cheap or poorly crafted should adorn it. Altar cloths are not foundation fabrics for words or theme statements. Altar cloths are vesture as much as the chasuble and alb.
- This Table is honored by keeping it free of anything and everything which is not the focus of eucharistic prayer. It is no longer a shelf for the cross and candles, much less for flowers, statues, reliquaries, missalettes, songbooks, homily notes, parish announcements, mass intentions, or the list of deceased to be prayed for during the month of November. It is certainly not the repository for pumpkins (Halloween or Thanksgiving), toys (Christmas), rings (high school celebrations), or diplomas (graduation ceremonies at any and all levels). A good rule of thumb is: if it is placed on the altar, it is consumed in the celebration and reserved for the sick (the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood), a constituent of and reserved for liturgical celebration (vessels and books), or is placed in archives of religious communities (profession charters). Anything else belongs somewhere else.
The Table of the Lord, like our dining room and kitchen tables, is a bearer of memories. To this Table Christians bring their tears and their joys, their dying and rising with Christ. As such a vessel of individual and collective memory, it is an object worthy of contemplation as much as any icon or statue. Indeed, the more we see our lives joined to the ongoing paschal offering of Christ, the more we will see the altar as a symbol of that great communion. In time the altar becomes a partner in our dialogue of prayer. The Byzantine tradition admirably sums up this rigorous sort of devotion to the altar when it directs the priest to bid farewell to the altar as he is about to leave the sanctuary at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy:
Remain in peace, holy altar of the Lord, for I do not know whether I shall return to you or not. May the Lord make me worthy of the vision of you in the assembly of the first born in heaven. In this covenant I trust.
Remain in peace, holy and propitiatory altar. May the holy body and the propitiatory blood which I have received from you be for me for the pardon of offences and the forgiveness of sins and for a confident face before the dread judgment seat of our Lord and God for ever.
Remain in peace, holy altar, table of life, and beg for me from our Lord Jesus Christ that I may not cease to remember you henceforth and for ever.