I went on a spiritual group retreat at St Thomas Moore Catholic Church and I came back different. I returned as an altar. Yes, I know this may sound extremely strange but that is essentially what happened to me after the mass. The priest explained that there are two types of altars, personal and sacrificial but that the personal altar can be linked by faith and trust to be a sacrificial altar.
He explained that 3 things are needed for an altar to be raised – the individual, the gift and the actual altar. He referred us to two instances in the Book of Genesis where altars were raised. But what is the big deal about raising an altar, anyways? As I was listening to the sermon, it dawned on me that it wasn’t a by-the-way kinda thing. Raising an altar is an incredibly important and significant affair.
RAISING ALTARS IN THE BIBLE
Genesis 8:19-21 has the first reference to altars. In fact whenever I look at a rainbow now, I will be reminded of the altar which Noah raised to God at the end of the flood. Verse 20 says: “Noah built an altar to Yahweh and taking some of all the clean animals and all the clean birds, he offered burnt offerings on it. Yahweh smelled the pleasing aroma and said to Himself: ‘Never again will I curse the earth because of man’.” Noah offered the clean animals and birds and raised an altar which was pleasing to God.
In Genesis 22:7-9, we find another bible reference to an altar involving Abraham as the individual and Isaac as the gift this time, not birds or animals. Verse 9 records that “when Abraham had built the altar and set the wood on it, he bound his son Isaac and laid him on the wood placed on the altar.”
COST OF SACRIFICE
Whenever I think of what Abraham was willing to sacrifice for God, his only son for whom he had waited for years, I get goosebumps. The priest explained that the cost of sacrifice must be such that you would intensely feel the loss. It reminds me of the motto, “no pain, no gain.” In 2 Samuel 24:24, when the land for the sacrifice was offered to King David for free, the king replied, “No, I will pay you for all this. I will not offer to Yahweh my God, something that costs me nothing. The offering must be pleasing and sacrifice is the trigger to please God.
This sacrifice is seen in 1 Kings 8:63 when Solomon dedicated the temple to God and sacrificed 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep as peace offerings to Yahweh. Now, that cost something and God replied by consecrating the temple and affirming Solomon’s kingship. As I thought over these costs, I realized that anyone can raise an altar, be it a person in favour with God or someone seeking the favour of God – anyone and everyone. However, this open access given by God has one condition – that the person be committed.
WHAT DOES AN ALTAR REPRESENT
Whenever the issue of a spiritual commitment arises, it is prudent to take a step back to reconsider things. Spiritual commitments are of a different nature to ones done in the world; more so, as they impact on the world. I am not saying that they are more important than the others because our word should be our bond in all cases. However, there should be a more heightened sense of reverence when it comes to spiritual commitments since they are made to God and are on an entirely different level.
An example of the significance of an altar is seen in 1 Kings 18:24 where Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal in an “operation show of power” when he says “The God who answers with fire is the true one.” Elijah showed off his God. He wanted to show that Yahweh is the only living God who must be served. He had faith in God and handed the entire situation to Him to show His greatness. The priest then mentioned one thing which has stuck in my mind – that God becomes active when you want to show him off and when you raise Him up. This makes sense. It is our desire to exalt God which triggers the activity. When you hide someone or keep someone at bay, why would they want to be active? The question is not HOW can God be active because God can do all things; but WHY should God be active? When you raise an altar for God by raising Him up, that place becomes an authentic place of worship and God’s power is made manifest.
We were also told that the altar raised by Elijah showed that God has a time and a pattern of operation and that He will always be faithful to those who trust in Him, just as he was to Noah, Abraham and David. Elijah knew that the time of sacrifice at the altar was to be later in the day so he invited the prophets of Baal to start first and delayed as seen in 1 Kings 18:36: “When the time of the evening offering came…”
VALIDATION OF PERSONAL ALTARS
By this time at the sermon, I became very aware of the import of what I had gathered to do at this retreat. I had come to raise an altar and it was serious business. The priest repeated that our personal altars can be linked by faith and trust to the sacrificial altar of the mass and all the masses being celebrated. He stressed that it was this supreme sacrifice of the mass which validated our personal altars. It was from there that our altars got their efficacy every time that mass is celebrated in any part of the world.
He warned that we needed to be committed once we had decided to raise an altar and that we must choose the sacrifice which we wish to offer. The altar being raised had to be personally built by us, so we need to come before God, even though we could decide to offer the sacrifices of another. It was at this point that I resolved that this had to be done. I needed to raise an altar to God. I needed to be like Noah, Abraham, David and Elijah and show God off. I needed to be the conduit through which God manifests His power and to bring forth God’s kingdom. I needed to raise a place of dedicated and authentic worship in my home. I needed to usher in the presence of God which brings unspeakable peace and joy.
Then I heard it: “YOU ARE THE ALTAR!”
YOU ARE THE ALTAR
I was like “what?” But then, it started to make sense. Indeed, we are the altar. 1 Cor 6:19 tells us that we are the temple. What lies in the temple? The altar. Where is the altar? In the very heart of the temple. The goal of Christianity is to instill the private altars we raise, in our hearts so as to bring God’s presence to all we meet and to dispel darkness. However, being an altar is different from being a temple. Although the temple houses the altar, sacrifices actually happen at the altar. The altar is the point of contact with the divine and our very being.
How many of us are prepared to be pure at all cost? The sacrifice must be pure which means the altar upon which the sacrifice is laid must also be pure. We must be that pure vessel upon which sacrifices and prayers are brought.
This brings me to my meditation on angels. Today I started the novena on the archangels and I have been pondering upon the angels constantly being in the throne room of God; the altar of God. The angels are ever before God offering up prayers and praise before Yahweh as seen in Rev 8:2-4. The amazing thing is that they also do this at our private altars. St. John Chrysostom opined that at mass “The angels surround the priest. The whole sanctuary and the space before the altar is filled with the heavenly Powers who come to honor Him who is present upon the altar.” When I link my worship at my private altar with that at the mass, this sacrifice is validated and I am certain that my guardian angels and the angels surrounding my home join the heavenly liturgy.
Contemplating upon this and more, I concluded that we must be intercessors for one another, praying for the good of one another and seeking to find favor from God for our neighbors by offering up ourselves. This is so difficult in a world which promotes the “you first” mentality but where is the cost in that? What has it cost you to raise that altar? Is it acceptable to God? King David was every conscious of the need to give God an acceptable sacrifice as seen in Psalm 51:17 and Matthew 5:23-24 stresses the communal aspect of reconciling with your brother before you approach the altar of sacrifice.
Purity of body, mind and heart lie at the heart of raising an altar. Moreso, you cannot be an altar if you do not seek purity at all cost. The pursuit of purity is the pursuit of God and that is what being an altar is all about. It starts with first raising a private altar in your home. Are you ready? The Presence of God awaits…
May our Heavenly Father and the angels on high, ignite us with the Holy Spirit and transform us to become that pleasing altar, set on fire for God. In the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amen