Altar

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An ancient Roman altar
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An altar is any structure upon which sacrifices or other offerings are offered for religious purposes, or some other sacred place where ceremonies take place. Altars are usually found in shrines, a sacred place. They are found worldwide in many cultures, particularly in the religions of Christianity, Neo-Paganism, Shinto, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism (also known as daoism). They were also found in other ancient religions.

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[edit] Altars in the Hebrew Bible

Altars (Hebrew mizbe'ah (מזבח)) in the Hebrew Bible were typically made of earth (Ex. 20:24) or unwrought stone (20:25). Altars were generally erected in conspicuous places (Genesis 22:9; Ezekiel 6:3; 2 Kings 23:12; 16:4; 23:8.) The first altar recorded in the Hebrew Bible is that erected by Noah (Genesis 8:20). Altars were erected by Abraham (Genesis 12:7; 13:4; 22:9), by Isaac (Genesis 26:25), by Jacob (33:20; 35:1, 3), and by Moses (Exodus 17:15, Adonai-nissi).

In the Tabernacle, and afterwards in the temple, two altars were erected.

(1.) The altar of burnt offering (Ex. 30:28), called also the "brasen altar" (Ex. 39:39) and "the table of the Lord" (Mal. 1:7) upon which the korbanot were offered.

The first altar, which was the "outdoor altar" that was used for animal sacrifices, is described in Ex. 27:1-8. It was a hollow square, 5 cubits in length and in breadth, and 3 cubits in height. It was made of shittim wood, and was overlaid with plates of brass. Its corners were ornamented with horns, and it had a ramp leading up to it (Ex. 29:12; Lev. 4:18). It was also filled with earth.

The second altar in the tabernacle and, in the temple later on, was indoors in the holy of holies, and this one was made of gold. It was a rectangular prism with horned corners, fringes of gold around the top, and poles to be carried with. This altar was used for incense offerings.

In Ex. 27:3 the various utensils used with the altar are enumerated. They were made of brass. (Comp. 1 Sam. 2:13, 14; Lev. 16:12; Num. 16:6, 7.)No utensils made of iron or of bronze were allowed near/on the altar as they were a sign of war.

In Solomon's temple the altar was of larger dimensions (2 Chr. 4:1. Comp. 1 Kings 8:22, 64; 9:25), and was made wholly of brass, covering a structure of stone or earth. This altar was renewed by Asa (2 Chr. 15:8). It was removed by Ahaz (2 Kings 16:14), and "cleansed" by Hezekiah, in the latter part of whose reign it was rebuilt. It was finally broken up and carried away by the Babylonians (Jer. 52:17).

Image:Altar.allsaints.arp.750pix.jpg
The altar with ciborium at All Saints Anglican church, Bristol, England

After the return from captivity it was re-erected (Ezra 3:3,6) where it had formerly stood. (Comp. 1 Macc. 4:47.) When Antiochus IV Epiphanes pillaged Jerusalem he defiled the altar of burnt offering by erecting a pagan altar upon it. Judas Maccabeus renewed the altar when he re-took Jerusalem. It was likely refurbushed by Herod during his extensive building activity on the Temple Mount, and remained in its place until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.

The fire on the altar was not permitted to go out (Lev. 6:9).

In the Mosque of Omar, immediately underneath the great dome, which occupies the site of the old temple, there is a rough projection of the natural rock, of about 60 feet in its extreme length, and 50 in its greatest breadth, and in its highest part about 4 feet above the general pavement. This rock seems to have been left intact when Solomon's temple was built, and may have been the site of the altar of burnt offering, although a recent analysis suggests it may have been the floor of the Holy of Holies. Underneath this rock is a cave, which may have been the granary of Araunah's threshing-floor (1 Chr. 21:22).

(2.) The altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-10), called also "the golden altar" (39:38; Num. 4:11), stood in the holy place "before the vail that is by the ark of the testimony." On this altar sweet spices were continually burned with fire taken from the brazen altar. The morning and the evening services were opened by the high priest offering incense on this altar. The burning of the incense was a type of prayer (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3, 4).

This altar was a small movable table, made of acacia wood overlaid with gold (Ex. 37:25, 26). It was 1 cubit in length and breadth, and 2 cubits in height.

In Solomon's temple the altar was similar in size, but was made of cedar-wood (1 Kings 6:20; 7:48) overlaid with gold. In Ezek. 41:22 it is called "the altar of wood." (Comp. Ex. 30:1-6.)

In the temple built after the Exile the altar was restored. Antiochus Epiphanes took it away, but it was afterwards restored by Judas Maccabeus (1 Macc. 1:23; 4:49). Among the trophies carried away by Titus on the destruction of Jerusalem the altar of incense is not found, nor is any mention made of it in Hebrews 9. It was at this altar Zacharias ministered when an angel appeared to him (Luke 1:11).

This entry incorporates text from the public domain Easton's Bible Dictionary, originally published in 1897.

[edit] Altars in Christianity

Image:Strdubmainaltar.jpg
The main, free-standing altar of St. Raphael's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Dubuque, Iowa. The original high altar is behind the screen. This altar contains a reliquary holding the remains of Saint Cessianus, a Roman Catholic Saint and Martyr killed during the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

The use of word "altar" (Greek: θυσιαστηριον) appears twenty-four times in the New Testament. Significantly, Hebrews 13:10 speaks of Jesus Christ as a metaphorical altar. The doctrine of Christ's substitutionary atonement allowed for an interpretation of the Christian celebration of the Last Supper - the Eucharist - to be a memorial or re-enactment of Christ's sacrifice. In Catholic theology it is a re-presentation, in the literal sense of the one sacrifice being made "present again." Hence, the table upon which the meal (the bread and the wine) is prepared came to be seen as an altar.

[edit] Altars in Christian churches

Altars occupy a prominent place in the chancels of many churches, especially in Anglican, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, and other more sacramental denominations. It plays a central role in the sacrament of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. The bread and the wine are placed upon the altar, and prayers of consecration and/or thanksgiving are offered by a priest or minister.

In some churches the area around the altar may be surrounded by altar rails, which provide a symbolic barrier between the sanctity of the altar and the surrounding space. In Eastern Christian churches, this sense of "fencing off" is heightened by the appearance of an iconostasis or "icon wall," separating the chancel from the nave. In some Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, a more open rood screen separates the quire from the nave. In Reformed and Anabaptist churches, a table that serves an analogous function is often called a communion table. In some Protestant denominations, the word altar is used to denote the chancel or sanctuary area of the church, although this usage is technically incorrect.

Most churches generally have a single altar, although larger ones may have one or more "side chapels", each with its own altar. Roman Rite Catholic churches have a single main altar, or "high altar," but many older churches also have two or more "side altars," a vestige of the days when Roman Rite priests did not concelebrate and so celebrated Mass every day individually at side chapels. In most Roman Rite churches today, only a single altar is used for Mass. Similarly, in some Anglican churches, there will be a high altar in the main body of the church, with altars placed in one or more adjoining chapels at which the Eucharist may be celebrated on weekdays.

Architecturally, there are two types of altars: Those that are fixed to the eastern wall of the chancel, or to the floor of the chancel generally, and those that are free-standing and can thus be moved.

In the earliest days of the Church, the Eucharist appears to have been celebrated on portable tables, perhaps tripods, set up for the purpose. During the persecutions, some historians hold that the Eucharist was celebrated in the catacombs, among the tombs, and Christians may have used the sarcophagi of martyrs as tables on which to celebrate — other historians dispute this, but it is the origin of the tradition of placing relics beneath the altar.

Once Christianity was legalized under Constantine, formal church buildings were built in great numbers, many with free-standing altars in the middle of the sanctuary. The sacred ministers (priest, deacon, and subdeacon) would celebrate the Mass or Divine Liturgy facing east, the same direction as the congregation, since they were praying the same collective prayer. Beginning in the Early Middle Ages, altars in Western Christian churches were being permanently placed against the east wall of the chancel, and the eastward orientation came to symbolically represent the collective focus on and worship of the Blessed Sacrament.

The re-emergence of free-standing altars in the West is a result of the liturgical renewal of the Reformation when wooden altars or tables were placed in the quire in front of the high altar. The purpose of this innovation was a theological belief that the liturgical action should be seen by the congregation, so that it not be construed as "magical". These altars differ from the above altars in that they stand away from the east wall; hence, as the ministers face the congregation in this arrangement, it is known as a westward orientation (even in churches not built on the traditional east-west axis). Catholic rubrics from the Middle Ages until the Vatican II presumed in many ways that the altar was fixed to the wall, yet directions for incensation and the like presumed it to be freestanding. Reforms to Catholic liturgy after Vatican II were intended to foster the participation of the whole congregation in the liturgical action, and free-standing altars became the norm in the Roman Rite once again. Similarly, in the Anglican Communion, the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer assumed an altar fixed against the wall, until prayer book revision in the twentieth century removed language which assumed any particular form of altar.

The terms "portable altar" and "fixed altar" are used differently in Roman Catholic and non-Roman Western usage. In the Roman Catholic Church, a "fixed altar" is one permanently affixed in place, no matter what its configuration or orientation or design, with a stone mensa (table top) and consecrated according to a special liturgy, whereas a portable altar describes any movable altar, usually more specifically one with a movable altar stone (see below). In other Western churches, "portable altar" refers to a particular type of free-standing altar, one set up specifically for the celebration of the Eucharist, and then removed subsequently. These are frequently found in those Protestant churches for whom the focus of worship is not on the Eucharist, which may be celebrated rarely, or in churches which want to make use of both a fixed and free-standing altar at different services. They may also be used to celebrate the Eucharist in places other than a church or chapel (such as outdoors or in an auditorium).

[edit] Altars in Roman Catholic churches

Image:SFXBasillicaMainAltar.jpg
The High Altar at the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Dyersville, Iowa. Note the free-standing altar in the foreground.

Roman Catholic churches distinguish two types of altar in canon law: fixed and portable.

Fixed altars may be on a single pedestal, four pillars or a box-like support. The mensa, or table tops, of these altars in the Roman Rite are made of a single piece of natural stone, most often marble. Beneath this mensa there may be placed the relics of saints, traditionally of martyrs and/or of the titular saint of the church (before Vatican II, all such altars had to have the relics of at least two saints, at least one of whom was a martyr, placed within <ref>Template:Cite web</ref> – this is now optional). The table is anointed with chrism during the ceremony of consecration (normally celebrated by a bishop), and the altar loses its consecration if it is moved, even momentarily.

Portable altars are those not permanently affixed. In the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church it was formerly required that Mass be celebrated on a consecrated stone altar containing the relics of at least two saints, at least one of whom had to be a martyr. This was not a problem when dealing with a fixed altar. For portable altars, an "altar stone", known as the ara was made, a solid square or rectangle usually of marble about eight inches square with a hole in it for the relics, and traditionally marked with five crosses. Such stones were consecrated by a bishop, and a priest needed a special "indult" or permission to use it for Mass. The stone could be inserted into a frame in a larger wooden table for convenience — such wooden altars were, and often still are, used for Masses in churches where the main altar is inconveniently located or in venues used only temporarily for Mass (school gyms or auditioriums for instance). It was often the case with military chaplains that the stone itself served as the altar, being placed on the hood of a jeep in the field, for example. A priest needed a special indult from the Pope to use a portable altar (these indults were freely given, especially to chaplains and missionaries), though bishops and cardinals had this privilege automatically by canon law. Today, any becoming table may be used as an altar by any priest in case of necessity and altar stones are no longer manufactured.

Altars in the Catholic Church find many forms. The main altar in many churches was a fixed table, often not more than a shelf built into reredos just beneath the tabernacle. In other churches, especially the ancient Roman basilicas, the main apse contained a free-standing altar. On either form of altar, before the Second Vatican Council the Mass was usually (but not always) offered with the sacred ministers and congregation facing the same direction, except that the ministers would circle a free-standing altar when using incense.

Image:Unchurch.jpg
An Pre-Second Vatican Council altar and reredos from University Church, Dublin

In addition to the main altar, most churches had one or more side altars, almost always of fixed form against a wall. Altars were raised on one or more steps, and typically had a statue, monumental crucifix or other depiction of a patron saint or sacred event fixed above them. The main altar featured the patron saint of the church, with side altars dedicated to The Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, or other saints. Side altars were used for the private daily Low masses of the priests serving the church and as Devotional Altars by the parishioners in private prayer.

By law altars had to be furnished with three cloths as a covering, two candles made at least primarily of beeswax, and a crucifix.

Since the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council (1961-1965), various options have been introduced encouraging a free-standing style of the main altar. The altar should in some way reflect the two dimensions of the sacrament, sacrifice and meal (The Last Supper which was a Seder meal of the Passover). As an altar of sacrifice it should be solid in construction and immoveable. As a "table" it should be centrally located and visible so that the faithful can visually and therefore prayerfully participate in the celebration of the sacrament. In the case of older churches built before 1966, the altar is usually placed in front of the old high altar. The altar may be made from a variety of materials typically, wood or stone.

With many old altars, the tabernacle was built directly into the reredos behind and above the altar. In churches that have retained the original high altar, the tabernacle is often retained there, otherwise the tabernacle is placed on an altar of repose of its own in or near the sanctuary. The tabernacle may also be placed in a Blessed Sacrament chapel. The most recent General Instruction of the Roman Missal which regulates liturgical celebration with the force of canon law, now requires Blessed Sacrament chapels to be in close association with and open to the body of the Church with the tabernacle clearly visible to the faithful for their adoration.

[edit] Altars in Anglican churches

Image:Altar.stmaryredcliffe.arp.jpg
The altar in St. Mary Anglican Church, Redcliffe, Bristol. It is decorated with a frontal in green, a colour typically associated with the seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost. Note the rood screen behind the free-standing altar.

Altars in the Anglican Communion vary widely. At the time of the Reformation, altars were fixed against the east end of the church, and the priests would celebrate the Mass standing at the front of the altar. Beginning with the rubrics of the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI published in 1552, and through the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (which prevailed for almost 300 years), the priest is directed to stand "at the north syde of the Table [altar]." This was variously interpreted over the years to mean the north side of the front of a fixed altar, the north end of a fixed altar (ie., facing south), the north side of a free-standing altar (presumably facing those intending to receive the Elements who would be sitting in the quire stalls opposite), or at the north end of a free-standing altar placed lengthwise in the chancel, facing a congregation seated in the nave.

Often, where a celebrant chose to situate himself was meant to convey his churchmanship (that is, more Reformed or more Catholic). The use of candles or tabernacles were banned by canon law, with the only appointed adornment being a white linen cloth.

Beginning with the Anglo-Catholic Revival in the 19th Century, the appearance of Anglican altars took a dramatic turn in many churches. Candles and, in some cases, tabernacles were reintroduced. In some churches two candles, on each end of the altar, were used; in other cases six - three on either side of a tabernacle, typically surmounted by a crucifix or some other image of Christ.

In Anglican practice, conformity to a given standard depends on the ecclesiastical province and/or the liturgical sensibilities of a given parish. In the Parson's Handbook, an influential manual for priests popular in the early-to-mid-twentieth century, Percy Dearmer recommends the size of an altar be "as nearly as possible 3 ft. 3 in. high, and at least deep enough to take a corporal [the square of linen placed underneath the Communion vessels] 20 in. square with a foot or more to spare." He also recommends that the altar stand upon three steps for each of the three sacred ministers, and that it be decorated with a silk frontal in the seasonal colour. In some cases, other manuals suggest that a stone be set in the top of wooden altars, in the belief that the custom be maintained of consecrating the bread and wine on a stone surface. In many other Anglican parishes, the custom is considerably less rigorous, especially in those parishes which use free-standing altars. Typically, these altars are made of wood, and may or may not have a solid front, which may or may not be ornamented. In many Anglican parishes, the use of frontals has persisted.

When altars are placed away from the wall of the chancel allowing a westward orientation, only two candles are placed on either end of it, since six would obscure the liturgical action, undermining the intent of a westward orientation (ie., that it be visible to the congregation). In such an arrangement, a tabernacle may stand to one side of or behind the altar, or an aumbry may be used.

Sensibilities concerning the sanctity of the altar are widespread in Anglicanism. In some parishes, the notion that the surface of the altar should only be touched by those in holy orders is maintained. In others, there is considerably less strictness. Nonetheless, the continued popularity of altar rails in Anglican church construction suggests that a sense of the sanctity of the altar and its surrounding area persists. In most cases, moreover, the practice of allowing only those items that have been blessed to be placed on the altar is maintained (that is, the linen cloth, candles, missal, and the Eucharistic vessels).

[edit] Altars in Eastern Christian churches

"Altar" has a meaning in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox churches that varies with context. Its most common usage does not denote the table itself, but the area surrounding it, behind the iconostasis, that is also called the sanctuary. When one enters the sanctuary, one is said to be "going into the altar". The table may alternately be referred to as the Holy Table or the Throne. This section will describe the Holy Table, not the sanctuary.

For both the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics, altars are always free-standing, although in very small sanctuaries they might be placed flush against the back wall for reasons of space. They are typically about one meter high, and although they may be made of stone they are generally built out of wood. The exact dimensions may vary, but it must be square in plan of a size in reasonable proportion to the sanctuary. It has five legs: one at each corner plus a central pillar for supporting the altar's relics. Over all is a plain linen cover bound to the altar with cords, and this cover is never removed after the altar is consecrated. (Since the altar is never seen uncovered thereafter, they tend to be constructed more with sturdiness than aesthetics in mind.) Above this first cover is a second ornamented cover, often in a brocade of a color that may change with the liturgical season.

Atop the altar is the tabernacle, a miniature shrine sometimes built in the form of a church, inside of which is a small ark containing the reserved Sacrament for use in communing the sick. Also kept on the altar is the Gospel book and the antimension, a silken cloth imprinted with an icon of Christ being prepared for burial, which has a relic sewn into it and bears the signature of the bishop. The Divine Liturgy must be served on an antimension even if the altar has been consecrated and contains relics. When not in use, the antimension is left in place wrapped in the eiliton, a cloth of plain silk, linen or cotton.

The altar may only be touched by ordained men, and nothing which is not itself consecrated or an object of veneration should be placed on it. Objects may also be placed on the altar as part of the process for setting them aside for sacred use. For example, icons are usually blessed by laying them on the altar for a period of time or for a certain number of Divine Liturgies before sprinkling them with holy water.

In place of the outer covering, some altars have a permanent solid cover which may be highly ornamented, richly carved, or even plated in precious metals. A smaller brocade cover is used on top of this if it is desired that the altar decorations reflect the liturgical season.

The altar is used as the place of offering in the celebration of the eucharist, where bread and wine are offered to God the Father and the Holy Spirit is invoked to make his Son Jesus Christ present in the gifts. It is also the place where the presiding clergy stand at any service, even where no eucharist is being celebrated and no offering is made but prayer.

[edit] Altars in Neo-Paganism

Main Article Altar (Wicca)

In Neo-Paganism, in particular the tradition of Wicca, altars are of particular importance. The Wiccan altar is used to symbolize the four Greek classical elements, of earth, air, fire and water.

[edit] Altars in Hinduism

See Vedic altars

In Hinduism, altars are also shrines to the gods, and therefore sacred. Offerings and sacrifices are made at these shrines, to the gods. A large shrine is found in the temple, or mandir, while smaller ones are found in the home. A Hindu shrine consists of images of the gods called murtis, and offerings to that god. There is usually also lights, pictures of saints and gurus, and offerings, often of food.

[edit] Altars in Buddhism

In Buddhism, altars are found at shrines. The shrines depict images of the Buddha or the Bodhisattvas.

[edit] Altars in Shinto

See Jinja

In Shinto, altars are found in shrines.

[edit] High places

High places are elevated spots on which altars were erected for worship in the belief that, as they were nearer heaven than the plains and valleys, they were more favourable places for prayer. The practice of worship on these spots, though after the temple was built it had been forbidden, became frequent among the Hebrews, and was with difficulty abolished, though denounced time after time by the prophets as an affront to God. A closely related example is a "backyard" altar, so to speak. Before there was a set temple and a set altar people set up their own altars on their property. After the temple was established using of these altars was forbidden, unlike the preivous case this was quickly eradicated.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

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This article incorporates text from the public domain 1907 edition of The Nuttall Encyclopaedia.


[edit] External links

cs:Oltář da:Alter de:Altar et:Altar es:Altar (religión) eo:Altaro fr:Autel (religion) gd:Altair it:Altare he:מזבח la:Altare lb:Altor lt:Altorius li:Altaor nl:Altaar (religie) ja:祭壇 no:Alter pl:Ołtarz pt:Altar ru:Алтарь simple:Altar sk:Oltár fi:Alttari sv:Altare tr:Altar

Altar

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