The Altar and The Strength of Christian Symbols

Over the Centuries, Liturgical Objects and Symbols have been Developed and Perfected.

Newsroom(25/10/2022 10:35 PM, Gaudium PressSince apostolic times, the Eucharistic Celebration has been the core around which the Liturgy of the Catholic Church has been built. For a very sublime reason: the real and substantial presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the sacred host, in body, blood and divinity, has always been the reason for the increase of the piety of the faithful.

Since the Mass is a “sacred banquet,” it was fitting that it should take place on a table, also sacred, which was later called an altar. This is why the sacrament of the Eucharist is so closely associated with this “sacred table” that there is no doubt that we refer to it when we say “sacrament of the altar”.

In this sense, the words of the 4th century bishop Optatus of Miletus are enlightening: “The altar is the throne of the body and blood of Christ”,[1] which is why the altar was established as an object of special reverence and respect by the faithful since the early Church.

At the Beginning of Christianity

In the first three centuries of Christianity, the Church faced terrible and repeated waves of persecution. Since death hovered over the head of those who bore the name Christian, the early Church was forced to hold its celebrations in catacombs or even in small family houses. It was necessary that the altars could be moved from one place to another, so that they would not be exposed to any kind of desecration by the pagans.

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Most altars of this time were then made of wood. When, however, in 313, Constantine gave Christians freedom of worship, the altar – as well as the whole liturgy – developed to a large extent.[2]

First of all, altars became stone and fixed to the ground, since there was no longer any danger – imminent at least – of desecration. Moreover, since the architecture of churches was being developed, it was not convenient to place a wooden altar in an awe-inspiring church made of stone. However, there was an even more beautiful reason: since the altar represents our Lord himself, who is the Cornerstone of the Church, it would be architecturally sound if it were also made of stone, symbolizing Christ more perfectly.[3]

The Relics of Martyrs

In the fourth century, the cult of the martyrs grew enormously, and Christians began to place their relics under the altars.

As we know, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and each member of the Church is also an inseparable member of Christ. When the Church is persecuted in its members, it is Christ himself who is persecuted: the christian is another Christ.

Now, the altar, being a representation of Jesus, cannot be complete without its members. Thus, since the martyrs are members of Christ, it is entirely fitting that they have a place under the altar. How beautiful it is to associate the sacrifice of the martyrs with the Sacrifice of the Cross which is renewed at each Mass.

The Strength of Christian Symbols

Over the centuries, from an artistic point of view, the altar has developed a tremendous amount. To the point of being built with altarpieces and tabernacles, where the Blessed Sacrament is kept.

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Similarly, all the other liturgical objects and symbols have been perfected. What gives them their strength is their eternal character. If, by any chance, it were possible to dissociate them from this two thousand year old tradition, they would most certainly lose much of their brilliance and value.

In other words, the faithful are delighted to know that there are Catholic cult objects with two thousand years of history, born from the burning faith of the Apostles and the first Christians.

By Lucas Rezende

[1] Cf. RIGHETTI, Mario. Historia de la liturgia. Madrid: BAC, 1955, p. 464.

[2] Cf. NEUNHEUSER, Burkhard Gottfied. History of the liturgy through the cultural epochs. Sao Paulo: Loyola, 2007, p. 85.

[3] Cf. RIGHETTI, Mario. Op.cit., p. 457.

[4] Cf. ibid., p. 447-448.

The post “The Throne of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Altar and its Centuries-Old History” appeared first on Gaudium Press.

Compiled by Florence MacDonald

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