There are altars in every religion. Some are made of stone. Some are made of wood. Some are made of metal. Some are made of glass.
Some are square. Some are rectangular. Some are round. Sometimes altars are high and lifted up.
Sometimes they are situated deep within the recesses of a worship space. Sometimes they’re right in the middle of a sanctuary. But wherever we go, in whatever religious space we find ourselves, there is an altar.
The word “altar” means “place of sacrifice or ritual practice.” In ancient times, some altars were bloodied by the ritual sacrifices of animals. Such practice was deemed necessary for pleasing and enjoying the right relationship with a deity. Since the nearly universal abolishment of such bloody rites, sacrifice has come to have spiritual and symbolic meanings.
In the Christian tradition, there has been a strong, if not ubiquitous, reference to Christ as offering his life as a sacrifice for humanity’s sins. In all cases, both then and now, an altar signifies an arresting reality: “this is a place where we remember the presence of the holy.”
In Christian liturgy, founded on Judaism’s observance of altar worship as portrayed in the Old Testament, an altar was regularly placed at one extremity of a sanctuary, with the worship leader facing east. (By the way, after the destruction of second temple in the year 70 CE, Judaism has foregone the use of an altar and instead has observed the veneration of an “ark” in which sacred torah scrolls are placed.)
For Protestant Christians, particularly those in the Reformed and Free Church traditions, the communion table has become the central focus of attention, but it functions in much the same way as an altar functions for Catholic Christians: here we renew our remembrance of the blessed presence of God.
Now altars can be both intimidating and alluring. For some folks, an altar may seem unwelcoming: “After all, who am I to dare to approach the Holy?…. I’ve been told that only ‘special people’ are permitted at the altar? Am I that ‘special’?…. Can I really be accepted by God?” For others, an altar is the best place to be: “Here I know once again that I am accepted, just as I am!…. Here everyone is welcome, including me, and this is cause for celebration!…. I’m glad for this physical reminder of spiritual grace!”
For one and all, particularly for Christians, an altar, by whatever name we call it, signifies our human inclination toward “altered” states of being. In a wedding we lead our beloved to the altar of commitment and devotion. At prayer times we lay our confessions, petitions, and thanksgiving before the altar of God’s grace. In the midst of worship, we surround the altar of celebration with our praises.
We are the religious animal who speaks of God and ourselves in the same breath. We can do no other. Our quest to be altered, that is, transformed, into better conformity with the Imago Dei (image of God) in which we were created, happens best when we are “altared,” that is, graced, by wondrous reminders of the presence of God in all aspects of our lives.