Genesis 22:1-2.9-13.15-18; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10
Imagine you have just built a church, an immense, wonderful building. It is all finished and has never been used. All the furnishings are in place, the pews, the confessionals, the baptismal font, the altar, the pulpit, tabernacle, the priest’s chair, the paschal candle. All is ready for the first Mass.
You stand at the main door and look down the carpeted aisle between the pews and survey the architectural splendour of this new building and marvel at the beauty of the sanctuary and its decorations, each one more striking than the other. And then you ask yourself: What is the most important item in this building? What is the most sacred? What is the most essential?
The answer is, of course, the altar. Indeed, one might say that a church building is to all intents and purposes not much more than a house for the altar – and, of course, for the people.
Altars are as old as humanity; they seem to have been around from the beginning. When Cain and Abel made their offerings to God it is probable they placed it on an altar. We are not told this explicitly but we can suppose they did; probably a rock or a heap of rammed earth.
Noah, too, built an altar for God and offered burnt offerings there.
Sometimes I take the primary children of the parish school for a tour through the church and if they ask me I tell them: An altar is a place where we put things we want to give to God. And that’s not a bad working definition of at least one of the functions of an altar – a place on which we sacrifice to God.
When God appeared to Abram at Shechem Abram built an altar there ‘for God who had appeared to him.' (Gn 12:7) This is slightly different from using an altar for sacrifice.
Abram built an altar to mark the spot where God had revealed himself. I can easily picture him doing this. It is like lovers carving a heart in the tree under which they had that picnic at which he asked her to marry him.
Abram moves on from Shechem. We are told (Gn 12:8): From there, he moved on to the mountainous district east of Bethel, where he pitched his tent, with Bethel to the west and Ai to the east. There he built an altar to God and invoked the name of God.
Now I find that rather interesting! First God speaks to Abram who builds an altar to mark the spot and then, at another time and in another place, Abram builds an altar because he wants to speak to God.
Perhaps a second definition is presenting itself: An altar is a point of communication between God and man. This seems to be confirmed by what happens later (Gn 13:3-4): By stages he (Abram) went from the Negeb to Bethel, where he had first pitched his tent, between Bethel and Al, at the place where he had formerly erected the altar. Here Abram invoked the name of Yahweh.
The altar which holds our attention today is the one Abraham built on the mountain of Moriah. On this altar he was going to place something he wanted to give, or more precisely, something he had been commanded to give to God, namely, his only son Isaac.
But it was not only his son that he placed on that altar. He placed there also his humble recognition of God’s sovereignty; his obedient worship, not to mention his own broken heart.
Perhaps definition number three now proposes itself: An altar is a place on which we place our love for God and on which God places his love for us.
The altar in our cathedral church is a beautiful one. At every Mass we set there bread and wine; our offerings. The little white disks of bread lie on a golden dish and the wine is poured into a golden chalice. Still they remain pretty ordinary as offerings. Indeed, humanly speaking, the gold might be even more attractive than the bread and wine.
But the very poverty of these offerings underscores the fact that, when all is said and done, we have nothing worthy of God. We certainly cannot give him something he hasn't got; something he needs. Nevertheless, we bring what he has asked us to bring and we humbly place it on the altar - and God makes a switch - like he did to Abraham, replacing his offering with one of his own.
Through the words of the priest the gifts are transformed - transubstantiated, actually; they become the Body and Blood of Jesus, the only begotten Son of God. Our difficulty recognising him is the same one those who met the Lord 2000 years ago had: ‘Can this man really be God?’ Today we say, ‘Can this bread really be God?’
Yes, it is. We believe that at the moment of consecration the gifts of bread and wine become Christ himself. If you don’t believe this you are not a Catholic.
And these gifts have now become worthy of God who cannot refuse, cannot resist the gift of his own Son. As the Father welcomes his Son he welcomes also those who offer him.
That’s what we are here to do, so let’s get busy.