Richard Lischer is professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word that Moved America (Oxford University Press).
This article appeared in the Christian Century April 7, 1982, p. 410. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The altar is both the place of death and our shelter from it. It may be possible to demythologize, existentialize, structuralize or moralize the biblical picture of sacrifice, but not without a substantial loss — the loss of the substance of sacrifice itself and all that it has meant to Christian theology and ethics.
He was the Word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it,
I do believe and take it.
The simplicity of this anonymous 16th century poem (included in The Christian Calendar [Merriam, 1975], p. 76) belies the centuries of theological warfare over the divine-human composition of the ordinary staples of life -- bread and wine. Likewise, the invitation that many Christians will hear this Maundy Thursday, “Come, the table of the Lord is prepared,” conceals in its unselfconscious openness another, even older theological division over the cultus’s central piece of furniture: the altar, or the table. From the three-legged dining table on which St. Peter was supposed to have celebrated his first mass in Rome, to the monolithic high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, to the “convenient wooden communion table” prescribed by Archbishop William Laud, the church has wrestled with the alternatives: altar or table?
Clearly the table is in the ascendancy. Edward Sövik’s remarks in Architecture for Worship are representative: “[The eucharistic table] ought to be distinguished (as it was by the early Christians) from the sacrificial altars of other religions. Its genus is rather the genus of the dining table” (Augsburg, 1973, p. 83).
Our congregation had just begun to plan for a new sanctuary when it was forced to deal with the design of the building’s central appointment. The Methodist architect put it to the Lutherans: tell me about your theology of the sacrament. At the end of pages and pages of mimeographed theological reflection, we made our weasel-worded reply. Make it a table -- but a very substantial one. Our theological instincts told us that there is something big and powerful behind the table, and we were unwilling to let it go -- or name it. What’s behind the table?
As an experiment, perhaps when you are home sitting at table, ask a child this question: “Where does that slice of bread on your sandwich come from?”
“From this cellophane package.”
“No, where, really?’
“Well, from the A & P, I guess.”
“No, I mean where does it come from?”
When pressed, the child will admit that she thinks the bread comes off a truck. If you probe any deeper, you come to what the paleontologist terms “the inaccessibility of origins” or what the frustrated parent calls a brick wall. And what is true of bread is also true of electricity, water, Fritos, lunch money, good books, calculators and roller skates. Things just are; we are given our world.
To see how removed we are from the origins of things, wander through the streets of a Spanish village until, toward dusk, you hear the sound of an unearthly scream. A child in pain? A dog in heat? No, on the back stoop of a simple stucco house, an old woman is calmly wringing a chicken’s neck. Suppertime. She is preparing a meal which, from its source on the back stoop, will reach table-ready completion in a matter of hours. Now, compare her children or grandchildren, who are standing in the doorway watching, with my children, who think that chicken comes from a kindly old Kentuckian with a white goatee, and one arrives at an observation and then a question of wider than cultural significance.
Our culture shields us from origins, for often at the source of any commodity there is misery. Adults know this. Children do not. So they ask, “Why do some Indians live on reservations?” “Why is Japan our special friend?” “Why are poor people poor?” The greatest thinkers have always gone ad fontes, to the sources. It was not Karl Marx but St. Augustine who said of the government of his day, “What else are the great kingdoms but great robberies?” Upton Sinclair wrote a book called The Jungle, whose real impact lay not in its revelation of human greed but in its portrayal of the inhuman conditions in which sausages are made.
Now the question: Does one appreciate the product more if one understands the toil and pain that lay behind it? We must give an answer if we are to understand the relationship between the altar and the table.
It is understandable, I think, that many modern churches are shying away from the altar as a monolithic place of sacrifice in favor of a table. At table there is harmony, unity and good etiquette; the only sounds are of polite conversation and the clink of sterling on china, or at least the reassuring solidity of plastic against styrofoam. At the altar there is the braying and screeching of beasts being slaughtered; it is not conversation one hears, but a cry of dereliction. At table there is the coziness of family relationships. One belongs at the table. Only for the most heinous of crimes is the child sent from the table. There, at table, one has direct access to the parent. At the altar is the alien and austere presence of the priest, the intermediary, who is neither father nor friend. One approaches the altar as one treads on holy ground, with trembling and awe. At table there is bread, wine and conviviality. At the altar, there is body, blood carnage and death.
Most churches have adopted the table, fittingly, as the setting for the sacramental meal without, however, remembering all that lay behind it. The table from which we receive the bread and wine is possible only because once, for all peoples, there was an altar on which God’s son was sacrificed. Early Christians who were accused of having no locus of sacrifice responded, “We have an altar” (Heb. 13:10), meaning by it Christ’s entire act of self-oblation. John Mason Neale’s translation of the ancient eucharistic hymn exposes the connection between altar and table, perhaps more vividly than modern Christians can tolerate:
The Lamb’s high banquet we await
In snow white robes of royal state;
And now, the Red Sea’s channel past,
To Christ our King we sing at last.
Upon the altar of the Cross
His body bath redeemed our loss;.
And tasting of His roseate blood,
Our life is hid with Him in God.
[Early Christian Latin Poets, (Loyola University Press, 1929), p. 126]
Our table-oriented family relationships in the church are possible because behind the table, visible to the eyes of faith, is the outline of something more substantial and more terrible. The table does not create the altar; the altar creates. the table. On Maundy Thursday, while sitting at table, Jesus considered himself a dead man and spoke of blood poured out and other subjects conventionally regarded as indelicate to table talk.
Yet with its horror and carnage, the altar can be a place of refuge. For it symbolizes the place of God’s own sacrifice. This is the Book of Hebrews’ theology of the altar: “For when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come . . . he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11-12). In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five a group of Allied soldiers is captured and herded into a defunct meatpacking plant near Dresden, a slaughterhouse in which they are to be incarcerated. How the prisoners dread going into the dank basements of that place! But when the firebombing of Dresden begins, the slaughterhouse no longer seems cold and inhospitable. Slaughterhouse No. 5 becomes a place of refuge.
We are drawn to this place of slaughter, this symbol around which our churches are built, and at the same time we are repelled by it. The altar is both the place of death and our shelter from it. It may be possible to demythologize, existentialize, structuralize or moralize the biblical picture of sacrifice, but not without a substantial loss -- the loss of the substance of sacrifice itself and all that it has meant to Christian theology and ethics. So for now, this Maundy Thursday, as our congregation gathers around its little table the altar of God still stands: it is a place of sacrifice but also a place of refuge for all, and the origin of our table-communion with one another.