Table or Altar?
At the east end of Christ Church stands a beautiful wooden piece of furniture, usually decorated with a cross, flowers, a fair linen, and a silk frontal. Some people call this structure an altar. Some call it a table. The longer I am in the church, the more I see this choice of names as fundamental to understanding what it is we do when we gather together as the church.
I was raised to call this structure the altar. It was the place where the priest stood and supplicated God on the people’s behalf. The idea of an altar is one with a long history in Christianity and Judaism, not to mention polytheistic religions. In the cult of the Jerusalem Temple, people gained entry to the building by bringing an animal to sacrifice. When the early church began as a Jewish movement, it understood Jesus’s death much in the way Judaism had understood Temple sacrifice. God was pictured as a wrathful, vengeful deity who needed to be “propitiated” (in the words of the old Prayer Book) or placated by the sacrifice of an animal or, in Jesus’s case, a human being.
To think of the central edifice of Christian worship as an altar is to say something about God and about us. A theology based on sacrifice is one that holds up purity as both the goal of human life and as something finally unattainable by imperfect human beings. Jesus was a once-for-all sacrifice for human sin. Nothing human beings can do will ever deserve such a transaction. Since we can never be fully pure, we need regularly to make a sacrificial offering at God’s altar as a way of asking for God’s continual mercy and forgiveness.
That, essentially, is the altar theology, and there is much to recommend it. It takes our weakness and finitude seriously. It represents the “size gap” between God and us dramatically. It honors my need to worship the One at the center of creation with reverence and dignity. But this theology has drawbacks, too. It pictures God as a divine monarch, and it makes my relationship with God very much like that of a subject petitioning a stern (but forgiving) king. It assumes that the central dynamic between God and me is based primarily on power.
As a complement to the altar theology, there is another way to think of this piece of furniture at the east end of the church. Rather than seeing it as an edifice on which to enact a ritual sacrifice (even one of “praise and thanksgiving”), we might, following Jesus’s lead in the Gospels, think of it as a table.
Jesus spent a lot of his time in table fellowship. He gathered people inclusively, generously, compassionately for meals at his table. On the night before he died he gathered his companions and told them to eat bread and wine together in his memory until he comes again. The ritual that Jesus instituted—the Eucharist—was really a meal. And in making a meal the central act of Christian worship, Jesus was suggesting that fellowship with God and other people is all about mutuality, sharing, hospitality, and grace.
It is significant that the Book of Common Prayer in all its iterations—1549, 1552, 1662, 1789, 1892, 1928, 1979—has consistently used the word “table” to name the place where this ritual meal takes place. Most of the time it’s called “the Table”. Sometimes it’s named “The Lord’s Table”. In the most recent prayer book it’s called “the Holy Table”. As far as I can tell by a quick perusal of all the prayer books, the Book of Common Prayer never uses the word “altar” in reference to the Lord’s Holy Table. “Altar” is a word that came into common usage in our church during the 19th century Oxford Movement. In its time it was an important term that recalled us of the seriousness and transcendence of the Eucharistic liturgy. But its use has snuck into our common consciousness in such a way that we have become disconnected from the basic, grounded humanness of what we are doing when we gather together for Communion.
When the early Christians proclaimed that Jesus was present with them in the Eucharist, they weren’t talking about the transubstantiation of the bread and wine. What they meant was that, when they gathered together around the Lord’s Table to give thanks, Jesus was present with them in the room. As the great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker said, the Eucharist is about the transformation of persons, not substances. Holy Communion is not a magic act performed in a royal temple. It is a meal in which we experience God’s presence among and with us as we break bread and drink wine with each other.
To see Communion this way may, for some, diminish its mystery and holiness. Perhaps. But from my perspective, the invitation to dine with Jesus and each other magnifies the depth and power of what we are doing together as we gather at the table. God values us enough to gather us as guests at Jesus’s table. God gathers us without reference to class, social, racial, ethnic, sexual, or ideological status or orientation. The inclusiveness of the invitation is an indication of the kind of God we’re dealing with in Jesus. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is accepted. Everyone is loved.
Summer is a time when many of us will have occasion for a variety of meals in a range of settings. As you gather at your various tables this summer, try to see them as Eucharistic meals in which, when two or three are gathered together, Jesus is present, too. Let the tables at which we gather in this season be Holy Tables, the Lord’s Tables. The love and welcome we offer and experience are expressions of the ultimate love behind what God in Jesus is all about. This experience of table fellowship is (or should be) what we know in our churchgoing as well.
And, of course: wherever you are this summer, don’t forget to go to church!
With this issue, “The Rector’s Monday Message” goes on summer hiatus until Homecoming in September. The next issue will appear on Monday, September 10.