What Does the Altar Symbolize - Meaning of the Altar

Churches may vary in size, style and design, but nearly every church in Christianity has one feature in common - the altar. The altar is arguably one of the most important aspects of a church, but how many people sit in church on Sunday and really contemplate what the altar symbolizes or how it became such a vital part of church services? Often seen as just a convenient piece of church furniture, the altar is truthfully as much of a symbol as it is an important component of religion. For those that are wondering what the altar symbolizes, Matthew F. Sheehan is here to help.

Purpose of the Altar

Sometimes referred to as "God's table," the altar is a sacred place in any church. It is a place to offer up sacrifices and gifts to God. It's also the place from which the Eucharist is celebrated. The word altar comes from the Latin words altārium and adolere, which mean "high" and "to ritually burn or sacrifice". This is consistent with the altar's early purpose according to the details found in the Bible.

Biblical Beginnings

The first altar was mentioned in the Bible. According to tradition, when Abraham arrives in Moreh, God reappears to him and in turn, he builds an altar. This altar was the first one that Abraham built and according to the Bible, in order to live a life of faith, one must first build an altar. While most of us don't have our own altars at home, nearly every church has an altar at the front of the building. As a member of the church, the altar belongs to everyone in the congregation. Traditionally, the act of building an altar means that we are offering everything we are and everything that we have to God. Everything that we value or love can be placed on the altar.

Once Abraham built his altar, he put his belongings on it and burned them. The altar is a physical reminder that we do not need to keep anything for ourselves. It is a reminder that our lives here on Earth are meant for God and God alone. Our purpose is in service, not in the collection of possessions. Because we are here for God, we put everything on the altar. It is a reminder that physical items are meaningless in life, but faith in God and living a good life are our real purposes. Think about that the next time you see your church's altar.

Modern Use

In modern churches, the altar is more symbolic than functional. It is considered an object of reverence and it is the place from which the Eucharist is celebrated. The altar is almost always placed in a prominent location within the church, typically on the east side, opposite the main entrance. In some churches, the priest may kiss or otherwise acknowledge the altar before beginning services. During the celebration of the Eucharist, the altar will hold the sacramental wine, wafers and other communion items.

Altar Position

Even the position of the altar is symbolic. According to tradition, churches should be built such that the altar is to the east. The altar is often placed within an apse, directly across from the main entrance, which is on the west side of the building. If the church cannot be built facing the east, the altar end will be referred to as the "east end" of the church. In this event, the altar is set at the liturgical east, rather than the cardinal east. The use of the liturgical east rather than the cardinal east has become more common in modern times as building codes and space restrictions make it more and more difficult to build churches in cities according to Christian tradition.

Altar Shape and Material

The shape and material used to build the altar is also symbolic. The altar has a shape similar to a table, which symbolizes the table used during the Last Supper. It was this event that the Eucharist is modeled after, making the connection between the church altar and the celebration of the Eucharist even stronger. While most religions do not outline a specific material that should be used to construct the altar, the first altars were almost all made of wood because it was readily available and easy to use. Stone altars became popular in modern times, though wooden altars can still be purchased. Metal altars are not particularly common because base metals are prone to corrosion and precious metals are prohibitively expensive.

The size, height and shape of the altar has not changed much over time. Most altars are the size of a modest table and are roughly the same height as a residential dining table. This allows the users to stand while administering the Eucharist and places the sacred elements within easy reach without prohibiting communication between the priest and the individual receiving Communion.

The altar is one of the most sacred components of the church, though it is often one of the most overlooked. For examples of beautiful modern altars or to order a new altar for your church, visit Matthew F. Sheehan. We carry a large selection of church altars and other church furniture at competitive prices. Matthew F. Sheehan has been serving the religious community since 1907 and would love the opportunity to help you find the right altar for your needs.