Ad Altare Dei

Rev Fr Jonathan Steele

In the Old Testament, the prophet Elias challenged the prophets of Baal to a test. He said:

Let two bullocks be given us, and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it upon wood, but put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under it. Call ye on the names of your gods, and I will call on the name of my Lord: and the God that shall answer by fire, let him be God.
— 3 Kings 18:23–24

And the prophets of Baal prepared their offering, not lighting it on fire, and called upon their gods to come and light it for them. They called ceaselessly from morning until noon, but nothing happened. They slashed themselves with knives to appease the anger of the gods, yet still nothing happened. Elias, however, prepared his offering, poured four buckets of water over all so that water ran into the trench around the altar, and then he prayed to God. What happened next is best told in the words of Sacred Scripture:

Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the holocaust... And when the people saw this, they fell on their faces, and they said: The Lord, He is God.
— 3 Kings 18:38–39

Look at the reaction of these crowds at fire coming down from heaven. They fell on their faces; they acknowledged the power of God. Yet what happens on our altars at Holy Mass? It is not fire that comes down on them but God Himself! Let us stop and think about what this means. The same God Who created the entire world; Who commanded the oceans to be set in their places; Who established the mountains; Who set in motion physical laws within nature which are still not fully understood today; to Whom the galaxies are as a speck of dust; this same God obeys the words of a mere creature — a priest — and comes down upon a slab of stone. Furthermore, He doesn't make His appearance in power and majesty. No! He hides His Divinity under the appearances of bread and wine — those two most common elements of human existence.

This is why the altar should be the focal point of every church building. As soon as we enter the church our eyes should be drawn almost irresistibly up the central aisle to the place where God chooses to become present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, time and time again. The altar is a place of sacrifice, a place where Christ offers Himself as Victim for our sins. It is a holy and sacred place, whether during Mass or not. In fact, this is one reason why only the priest is permitted to place his hands on it, and even he is not permitted to do this except during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, when he is acting in the place of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. It is a place that we veil because it is set aside to be used only for the glory and service of Almighty God.

In a way, the altar is similar to our souls, or perhaps it is the other way round. Our souls are places where God dwells, really and truly, both in a physical way, when we receive Him in Holy Communion, and through the life of grace. If our souls are not in the state of grace, then they are like altars which have been desecrated or destroyed. There are many horrific stories of altars that were used, for example, by soldiers who hate Our Lord, as a place to feed their horses. We do something similar when we choose to fall away from the life of grace. In other words, our souls are meant to be places where God dwells, but if we are in the state of mortal sin, then we kick Him out of our soul completely.

As servers who stand so very close to God at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, let us strive to keep the altar of our soul holy and sacred, i.e. consecrated to the service of God alone. Let us seek always to make our souls places where God wants to come, where He is happy and made to feel welcome. Let us promise to fight against those temptations that will desecrate our souls, that kick God out violently, especially those against holy purity. As we go through this month of March, let us ask St. Joseph to help us in this, to give us the grace to imitate him in making Our Lord feel truly at home on the altar of our souls. Introibo ad altare Dei!

~ To Serve is to Reign! ~

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