By: Rev. Mr. Aaron M. Williams
Recently, I have been reading The Sacred & The Profane: The Nature of Religion by Mircea Eliade. The author considers the role of myth, symbolism, and ritual within the religious cultures of the ancient and modern world. One such consideration involved the idea of a sacred place or object which, for a particular culture, formed the center of focus for that community. It is as if the entirety of the cosmos revolves around that one point, or around the actions that occur at that place. Somehow, everything is dependent on this object. Or, the movements of the natural world are governed (or at least reflected) by the movements within this space.
A particular example which caught my eye was Eliade’s consideration of the Achilpa—a tribe of indigenous Australian nomads. It was the belief of this tribe that their founder, Numbakula, made a sacred pole which, after anointing it with his own blood, he climbed before ascending into the heavens. From that point on, the Achilpa would carry this pole with them and use its bend to decide the next direction the tribe would travel. Eventually, for some reason or another, the sacred pole shattered. This was a catastrophe for the Achilpa people, who spent a few months afterwards wandering aimlessly before eventually laying on the ground and waiting for death.
It may seem like a strange story, but there is a definitive truth in the experience of the Achilpa people. For them, the sacred pole was their only connection to the divine. Its shattering meant that they would no longer have contact with the gods, and thus could no longer have grace or the assistance of the gods, and no longer offer them true worship. Though we as Christians would say that the Achilpa’s faith was misplaced, their experience reveals something at the heart of man’s religious life.
The Jews had their own sacred place: the temple and, before that, the tent of meeting. This was the only place where they had access to God, such that all able Jews were bound to travel to Jerusalem several times a year to celebrate the festivals in the temple. The destruction of the first temple, as described in 2 Kings, marked a catastrophic moment in Jewish history. Though the temple itself was rebuilt, the Ark of the Covenant was never returned to the Holy Place and thus neither did the cloud, which once marked God’s presence, fill the temple. The subsequent destruction of the second temple by the Romans forced Judaism to reform into a non-sacrificial and non-priestly religion. Its entire essence was changed.
Catholicism, on the other hand, doesn’t quite fit the mold. There is no one place where Catholics must offer worship. (i.e. there is no Catholic “Mecca” or temple in Jerusalem). Rome is the center of authority, but Catholics have access to God at all places in the world. Instead, Catholics have altars—objects which form the visual center of the Catholic church. It is at the altar that Catholics have true access to God and only at the altar can they offer the most pure worship commanded by Christ. In many ways, the altar is the center of the Catholic cosmos.
But, the most significant difference between the Catholic altar and the sacred pole of the Achilpa is that, while the destruction of a particular altar might be disastrous for a given community, it would not be a cosmological catastrophe. The Catholic altar receives its efficacy from something other than itself: the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. In effect, the altar is so significant because the altar is the sacrament of Christ.
Considering this, it is easy to see why the reformers of the early 20th century Liturgical Movement were so insistent that the altar be built free-standing. Far from being a command to change the direction of the celebration of the Mass (though, this certainly became a licit option after the reform), the altar needed to be built separate because it was the center of the “little cosmos” present in the church building. In many churches built prior to the Liturgical Movement, the focal point of the room was not the altar per se, but the ‘reredos’—that is, the large and ornate wall behind the altar. In the eyes of the reformers, these artistic masterpieces, despite their beauty, pulled attention away from the natural focal point of worship and moved it to the carved arches and plaster faces on the reredos. Instead, the modern altar was to be built, where possible, ‘detached’ from the wall—a detachment far enough that the altar could be walked around. It should be truly ‘free-standing’—the natural focal point of the room.
St. Pio of Pietrelcina once said, “It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do without Holy Mass.” Surely, if sacrifice was no longer offered on the Catholic altar, it would be a true catastrophe. But, we have the confident hope given in our Lord’s promise that his new dispensation would last until the end of time—until such a time that the earthly altars are replaced by the altar in the throne room of heaven. Until that movement, however, when we approach the altar of our parish, we do well to remind ourselves that our lives (indeed, all things) should revolve around it and the sacrifice that occurs upon it. It is greater than Jacob’s ladder, for Jacob only saw angels ascending and descending from the throne of God. But, upon the altar in our Churches today, the sacrifice of Christ and our own sacrifices ascend to the heights of heaven. Indeed, at the Mass, the entire cosmos is drawn to the altar to be offered with Christ to God the Father.
About the Author: Rev. Mr. Aaron M. Williams
Deacon Aaron Williams is a third-year theologian studying for the diocese of Jackson, MS. During his summer breaks, Aaron is enrolled in a program at the Liturgical Institute at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake where he is pursing a master’s degree in liturgy. He will be ordained a priest of Jackson in the Spring of 2018.
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