Skip to comments.The Brazen Altar of Authority
Posted on 08/27/2009 5:22:25 AM PDT by NYer
One of the most spectacular benefits Catholics receive from a study of the Old Testament tabernacle is the discovery of how rational, necessary, and relevant are all the practices, rituals, trappings, and structures of the Catholic Church. Some knowledge of their roots in the tabernacle is absolutely necessary to counter the modern mood that the Church should "modernize," most interpretations of "modernize" including some variation of "change."
Take the "outdated" sacrificial altar, for instance. In Old Testament Judaism, the tabernacle was the outward symbol and manifestation of God’s desire to be surrounded by His people, to be present with and to live among them. It was, as in all things relating to the tabernacle (Hebrews 8:5) a copy of the heavenly temple where God is eternally surrounded by worshipers (Revelation 4-5). The tabernacle was a tent, of sorts, and the portable place of worship for the nomadic Israelites, who lived directly outside its boundaries, surrounding it, by tribe, on all sides. Directly inside the eastern entrance to the outer part of the tabernacle was the brazen (bronze) sacrificial altar. It was the first thing one encountered upon entrance to the tabernacle, denoting that atonement for sin was the first thing required for admittance to the presence of God and communion with Him. The altar’s design was specified in great detail by God, as was every facet of the tabernacle and its worship, including the prescription for the many sacrifices that should be offered there.
What’s interesting about the design of the altar, though, is the specification that it include four projections, one at each corner, which were called horns, and that they must be of one piece with the altar itself (Exodus 27:2). Although the horns were not retained on her altars by the Church, the word horn, cornu, is used to designate the corners of Catholic altars, cornu epistolae and cornu evangelii meaning the epistle and gospel sides of the altar respectively. How could horns possibly be relevant to the altar? Why would God specify that the altar be crowned with horns, and be "one" with the horns, when they seem so strange, and even distasteful?
They served a functional role in keeping the large carcasses of bulls and other animals in place on the altar as they were burned up and fell apart, but more importantly, in the Scriptures, horns are always a symbol of authority. Old Testament priests and kings were anointed for service with oil poured from a horn. Zechariah prophesied about Christ: "Blessed is the Lord God of Israel/…He has raised up a horn of salvation for us/ In the house of His servant David" (Luke 1:69). St. John saw a vision of Jesus in the heavenly temple: "And I looked, and behold…a Lamb as though it had been slain, having seven horns…" (Revelation 5:6). The number seven is highly symbolic in the Scriptures too, denoting divine perfection. Therefore, in the heavenly temple, at this moment in time, and the single moment that is eternity, there is a sacrifice of complete and divine authority present on the throne with God in the person of Jesus, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) and who was slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8).
The sacrificial altar in the tabernacle, then, was crowned with authority. What kind of authority? The authority which is God’s alone: sacrifice. It is the extravagantly sacrificial nature of divine Love that makes its power so matchless, such that all men and every creature will bow to and be conquered by it. The Old Testament sacrifices were simply to instruct the people (us!) that sacrifices and atonement are necessary for a relationship with God. They were performed mostly out of a sense of obedience and duty, but that was merely the lesson of beginners. The lesson to follow, the new lesson, was the one Jesus would teach through His own sacrifice. That is, that our sacrifices must be of our very selves, to death — wholly consumed on the altar and offered to God solely out of love for Him. This is the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system, and Jesus revealed it, showing us by outrageous example how it must be done in order to please the Father in the Church age.
Oh, what a strange and beautiful grace, worthy only of God and those who would be owned by Him. We will sing of it for endless days.
I often wince when I hear people say they could never be Catholic: all those rituals, and practices, and authorities, and rules, they say. I wince because their words echo my own sentiments in days past, sentiments that haunt me now for their ignorance and for how dangerously close they were to preventing me from the most glorious manifestation of Christ I have ever encountered: His Church. Surely we must learn to love and understand the Mass and all its rites and liturgy and ceremony, for it is merely the fulfillment of God’s Old Testament design, Jesus’ example, and a copy of what is always occurring, occurring now, in the heavenly temple. How else will we ever be at home in heaven?
In the Maronite Divine Liturgy, during the Consecration of the Cup, the priest tips the chalice towards the 4 corners of the earth to symbolize that Christ shed His blood for all mankind. This tradition dates back to the Jewish worship service where the blood of the sacrificial animal was sprinkled on the 4 corners of the altar.
Isn’t that beautiful!
I remember seeing this when I attended the Maronite parish in Roanoke, VA in May 2005. Yet another reason why I love the Eastern Catholic Rites and love to visit Eastern parishes when I travel.
Beautiful! thanks, NYer!