Thursday, September 30, 2010

Altar or Table?

Since the Second Vatican Council, the idea has crept into our vocabulary that the altar is also a "table." There are a couple of things in this regard that are held to be in opposition. The "conservative" camp feels that the Mass is a sacrifice, a ritual to be carried out with precision and solemnity, and the "liberal" camp believes that the Mass is really more of a meal, a representation of the Last Supper - Jesus breaking bread with his friends. "Liberals" suggest that talk of the Mass as a sacrifice is "Old Testamentish" and needs to be eradicated because it is an avenue which allows pharisaical rubric-following to become part of the Mass.

The Second Vatican Council actually doesn't say anything on the topic directly. Paragraph 47 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the key passage on the Eucharist, notes that:
"At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us."

People see the word "banquet" and often take that and run with it. So prevalent was the misunderstanding that the Mass is somehow a "meal of friends" in some places following the Council that a letter was issued several years ago from the Vatican, Redemptionis Sacramentum, which says the following in paragraph 77 - "The celebration of Holy Mass is not to be inserted in any way into the setting of a common meal, nor joined with this kind of banquet. Mass is not to be celebrated without grave necessity on a dinner table nor in a dining room or banquet hall, nor in a room where food is present, nor in a place where the participants during the celebration itself are seated at tables. If out of grave necessity Mass must be celebrated in the same place where eating will later take place, there is to be a clear interval of time between the conclusion of Mass and the beginning of the meal, and ordinary food is not to be set before the faithful during the celebration of Mass."
While certain Vatican documents mention "the table of the Lord's Body", it still doesn't mean that the altar is itself a table - it is an altar.

In the Spirit of the Liturgy by Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger), he notes "The Eucharist that Christians celebrate really cannot adequately be described by the term “meal”.” Pope Benedict feels this "meal" mentality has crept in because of the fact that the priest now faces the people (a change that nothing from the Church has ever called for. Yes - I think the priest should celebrate Mass that way still, but that is for a later post).

Saint Paul says to the Corinthians "When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord's supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk. Do you not have houses in which you can eat and drink?"
There are aspects of the Mass which are meal-like, but it certainly confuses people to refer to the Mass as a meal. May we always remember that the Mass is the "unbloody sacrifice of Calvary" and that the things that we see in the center of our churches are altars and not dining room tables.