Reverencing the Altar: Why?

Why do we reverence the altar?

Why, in “liturgical churches,” do we bow in front of, or before, the altar (which is also a table) of God, upon which the Body and Blood of Christ are given to God’s people?

One of the greatest joys of my life personally is the opportunity to share the sacramental-way-of-being-Christian with folks who have never known. With folks who have never been exposed to the life of a Eucharistic community which centers itself on the sacramentalism by which God puts his life into us (as CS Lewis says).

Why do we reverence the altar?

Much of the time, when it comes to questions like this, there is no single correct answer. With the liturgy things are not always systematically black & white.

And yet, for me there are two reasons why we bow (or genuflect) before the altar. One is metaphysical and the other is practical.

The metaphysical reason is that we are bowing before the King of the Universe, who is present at the altar. How is he present at the altar? He is present at the altar in a sacramental way. This is true when the Body and Blood of Christ are on the altar; it is true when the people of God are surrounding the altar; most of all (in my opinion) it is true because of the aumbry or tabernacle, in which the consecrated elements are kept for later use. and which is located somewhere behind (or sometimes to the side) of the altar.

Interestingly, Christ Church South does not have an aumbry. That is OK; we are one church on two campuses, and Christ Church Downtown does have an aumbry. So, in my sacramental imagination, when I bow before the altar at Christ Church South (say, on a Thursday afternoon when I am in the worship space getting tasks done), I am actually bowing in the presence of the aumbry at Christ Church Downtown. This is something like what Charles Williams would call metaphysical co-inherence.

Secondly, however, reverencing the altar is practical. This is just as important as the metaphysical reason for bowing or genuflecting. It serves as a reminder, which seeps down into my “muscle memory” and my bones, that I need not be in a hurry. Because of Christ and the Gospel, I can rest. I can pause and give thanks. Every bow is like a little prayer. In a world in which time is both insanely scarce and efficiently commodified, this practice or habit is like a miniature “mental vacation” (to borrow a phrase from Fr. Thomas Keating). For me, it’s a little taste of leisure.

Those are my reasons for reverencing the altar. The last thing to be said is that some Episcopalians (brothers & sisters in my own church) never reverence the altar. And that is OK. Here as elsewhere, the Anglican dictum “all may, some should, and none must” is apropos.

Share