What Is An Altar, Its Significance And Location In The Church Building?

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Table of contents

  1. The Central Significance of the Altar
  2. The Altar's Dual Role: Sacrifice and Communion
  3. Positioning and Design of the Altar
  4. Decorative Elements and Symbols on the Altar
  5. The Ambo: Proclaiming the Word of God
  6. The Authority and Dignity of the Ambo

The Central Significance of the Altar

The altar symbolized Christ. An altar is a table or structure used for offering sacrifice. For Catholics, it is the place for the central sacrifice where the Eucharistic enacted. The altar is central to the liturgical celebration and should be the cynosure of all eyes during Eucharistic celebrations. The altar too should clearly take its place above everything else in the sanctuary. This is so clearly explained in the rubrics that it is a great mystery. The altar should always be raised on step, or predella, which sets it above and apart from the rest of other things. It is, we must remember, not only the place of sacrifice, but also the sign of Christ himself (Eucharistic Mysterious 524).

The Altar's Dual Role: Sacrifice and Communion

The GRIM maintains that: The altar on which the sacrifice of the cross is made present under sacramental signs is also the table of the Lord to which the people of God are called together to participate in the Mass, as well as the centre of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharistic (no. 296). Built of living stone (BLS) does not frequently refer to the altar as a table; it does say that the altar is the place of sacrifice and the table around which the community gathers (no. 58). However the rite of the dedication of a church and an altar repeatedly refers to the altar as a table.

The prayer of dedication refers to the altar as a table for the sacrifice of Christ and as the table of Christ’s body (DCA, chap. 2, no. 62). The celebration of the Eucharist in a sacred place is to be carried out on an altar; but outside a sacred place, it may be carried out on a suitable table, always it may be carried cloth on a suitable table, always with the use of a white cloth, a corporal, a crucifix, and candles (GIRM 297). A fixed altar made of stone is highly recommend for a church, since it more clearly and permanently signifies Christ Jesus, the living stone (1 Pet. 2;4; Eph 2:20).

Positioning and Design of the Altar

The altar is located in the sanctuary. It should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily. One the altar, Mass can be celebrated facing the people. This is desirable whenever possible. The altar should, moreover, be o placed as to be truly the centre towards which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar is usually fixed and dedicated. The altar are within the sanctuary is very vital in a church building. Ideally it has a minimum dimension of 12 feet by 16 feet.

On this plat form, the altar table rests. As seen elsewhere, it must allow enough space to walk around the altar (Chibuko 24). A minimum number of two steps are required between the communion platform and the ceremonial platform. The steps (risers) measure 6 inches high (150 mm) and 15 inches (375 mm) wide each (28). In sum, the altar should be a so positioned that it reflects the whole community’s joint action especially during the celebration of the Eucharist. Altars that are set two high and too far from the congregation look very much like a concert theatre stage. The mass is not a kind of drama in which every one else is a spectator and the actors on these stage are there to entertain. Hence, the high stage sanctuaries and altars should be discouraged in a church building.

Decorative Elements and Symbols on the Altar

As seen above, the church art is not decoration in the manner of secular buildings or theatres, but throughout history has had didactic or devotional purposes. Therefore, out of the reverence for the banquet in which the body and blood of the Lord are offered on an altar at least one white cloth, its shape, size and decoration in keeping with the altar’s design (GIRM 304). Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar and the entire church. Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on it mensa- the top of the altar. During advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this season without expression prematurely the full joy of the nativity of the Lord. During lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers; solemnities and feasts are exception. Only what is required for celebration of the mass may be placed on the mensa of the altar, namely from the beginning of the celebration until the proclamation of the Gospel, the Book of the Gospels; then from the presentation of the gifts until the purification of the vessels, the chalice with the paten, a ciborium if necessary, and, finally, the corporal, the purificator, the pall, and the missal. In addition, microphones that may be needed to amplify the priest’s voice should be arranged discreetly (no. 30).

The candles, which are required at every liturgical service out of reverence and an account of the festiveness of the celebration, are to be appropriately placed either on or around the altar in a way suited to the design of the altar and the sanctuary so that the whole may be well balanced and not interfere with the Faithfull’s clear view of what takes place at the altar or what is placed on it. There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation (no. 308). Here we Here we must emphasize that only a single cross should be carried in a procession in order to give greater dignity and reverence to the cross. It is desirable to place the dignity and reverence to the cross. It is desirable to place the cross that has been carried in the procession near the alter so that it may serve as the cross of the altar that is, when another cross is not already prominently visible to the worshipping community; otherwise it should be put away during the service or celebration ( Liturgy Documents 114).

One and only one cross visible to the generality of the worshipping community is all that the GIRM 308 directs. Where is one already hanging high on the wall behind the altar of sacrifice there would hardly be any acceptable reason to duplicate the symbol. One must not fail to take notice of the fact that the GRIM has made known that major signs are not to be duplicated in the church and no exception is made of our Lord by way of crucifix or other representational forms.

In accord with ancient traditions, images of Christ, Mary, and the saints are venerated in churches. They should, however, not be too numerous; there should not be more than one image of the same saint (no. 318).

Care should be taken that their number be not increased indiscriminately and that they be arranged in proper order so as not to distract the faithful’s attention from the celebration itself (SC 125). Only one cross (crucifix) for the entire worshipping community may be tolerated on the altar or Sanctuary facing the assembly. A two-way crucifix lacks liturgical theological warrant (Nwatu 16). Large cross or crucifix, candle sticks and flower vases lined up on the altar at Mass may obstruct the views of the assembly and the congregation from what is happening on the altar.

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Finally, the altar is a central point of attention in the Church in addition to the presidential chair and especially the ambo (lectern). Hence, whenever the liturgical books talks about reverence to the altar, the language is so clear that what it means is reverences to the altar not to the wall behind the altar, secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the provision for the celebrant to have to look at the corpus (image of Christ) on the altar crucifix at certain part of the liturgy was quite wisely eliminated in the reformed liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. We have taken pains to explain the altar’s furnishings and decorations. Care should be taken to do away with what is not proper to the altar like, the eye glasses, handkerchief, towel, lavabo basin including the bishop’s Zuchetto (skullcap). It is not proper to leave our dressing cap on the dining table, talks less of the Eucharistic altar.

The Ambo: Proclaiming the Word of God

The raised platform (Pulpit, lectern) for reading and preaching is also commonly referred to today as an “ambo” (ambwn). The term ambo is derived probably from the Greek word ‘anabaineiv’ (to mount). The elevant reading platform was designed by other terms as well: ‘pulpitum’ ‘suggestus’, auditorium’, tribunal, exedra’, dicterium’ and Late Latin usage, “lectricium’ legitorium’, analogium” (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol.II).

Since the scriptural service had its origin in the synagogue the pulpit has possible precedent in the Synagogue service where a platform was sometimes provided for the reading of sacred scriptures, its early use in the Christian Church in Africa is attested to by both Augustine and Cyprian (New Catholic Encyclopedia II).

Ambo or pulpit is a fixed elevated platform, usually between the sanctuary and the nave used for reading and chanting the scripture, the exulted, the homily and the general intercessions. Its placement indicates the relationship of the word to the sacrament and should allow the faithful to see and hear the ministries easily (Lang 311). In short, there are two tables at the Eucharistic celebration; the table of the word and the table of the Eucharist. And there is a connection between them.

To be worthy of its function as a suitable place to proclaim the message of the lord, the lectern ought to be carefully proportioned, constructed of fine materials, and beautifully designed. Its proper placement should ensure visibility and audibility not only of the word but also of the homily (Lang 311). Because of its significant as the place where the word is proclaimed and broken for the spiritual nourishment of the faithful, the ambo or lectern should not be abused (Ronzani 25), announcements, reading or making of speeches should not be done on the pulpit.

The fixed lectern or table of the word on the sanctuary is not to be used by the commentators, cantor or choirmaster for their functions. It is used only to proclaim the word of God. Because of the dignity of the word of God the lectern where the word is proclaimed should be respected. The commentator in performing his function stands in an appropriate place the faithful, but not at the ambo (GIRM 105).

The Authority and Dignity of the Ambo

The General Instructions of the Roman Missal directs: “The dignity of the word of God requires that the church have a place that is suitable for the proclamation of the Word and towards which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns during the liturgy of the Word. The dignity of the ambo requires that only a minister of the word should go up to it” (309).

However, there is to be one permanent ambo preferably not simply a moveable stand for the proclamation of the word of God from or near the sanctuary (GIRM 309). It must always be borne in mind that the ambo, the altar and the presidential chair are prominent focal points in a liturgical assembly and to hide any of them is totally inappropriate.

Besides, the ambo may also be called “chair for preaching”, because of the connotation of authority in the word chair, the authority of the priest/celebrant to deliver the homily is such that when the word of God is delivered from this stand, he is covered because he is witnessing for Christ. In other words he is protected from persecution and should also be ready for persecution. It is liturgical and official to deliver the homily from the ambo. Jesus in other to proclaim the beatitudes (matt 5:1-12); the official tent or manger charter of Christianity went up the mountain. This is symbolized by the pulpit as the raised platform for preaching the word of God.

Nevertheless, simple movable lecterns, which may be only in ledge supported on a post or column of wood or metal, and do not compete with the Gospel lectern may be used by commentators, readers of announcements, MCS for found raising and bazaars, cantors or choirmaster. But this may be removed after use to avoid conflict of the symbols.

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