Altars and Apsides
By Steven Woolley.
You sort of asked; it’s all that’s needed to push the starter and get me going. So let’s talk about altars.
Like I said, an altar is almost always something in the form of a table on which sacrifices are made to the gods. A sacrifice is an action done to make something sacred or holy, and thus acceptable to the gods. There may be ancient religions without sacrifices, but I don’t know them. Even Buddhism, which has no clear idea about god, has altars and sacrifices.
Our common idea of a sacrifice is to kill or destroy something of value, hoping it will be acceptable, with the idea that, since it’s no longer is present to us, it’s become present to the gods. If the gods like it, maybe they’ll do something nice in return. After all, what could be ore costly than a life, or something of material value? Surely the gods will be pleased.
The ancient Jewish tradition, from which our western ways of thinking come, is a little different. God, does not need the sacrifice, it’s not a bribe to get God to do something (although a lot of people can’t get that out of their heads). The sacrifice of an animal or first fruits of the harvest was intended to be costly, the best and first of what one had, as a sign of commitment to a relationship with God and obedience to God’s law. God didn’t need to get it. The people needed to give it. Think of it as God’s version of the old rule that you can’t give away kittens, but you can sell sell them. Needless to say, it got corrupted in dozens of ways, all of which are duly recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. The tradition from which we emerged was nothing if not honest about its own shortcomings.
The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 c.e. (the Common Era), and Jewish sacrifices ceased, never to be restored. In the meantime, the new Christian faith went in another direction. Each week they gathered for worship and shared a simple meal of bread and wine, which they understood to be both a remembrance of the Last Supper, and a participation in the actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine. It was a sacrifice in which they presented the bread and wine to God who made it into holy food and drink to nourish them for the days ahead. Then they presented themselves, their bodies and souls, to be holy and reasonable sacrifices to God – that is, they presented themselves to be made holy and useful to God. Being human, it doesn’t last. That’s why it was repeated each week. Because the rite was sacrificial, the table at which it was celebrated was an altar.
As the centuries passed the rite became corrupt. Somehow the priest was understood to be repeating Christ’s “sacrifice” on the cross, and the idea of sacrifice drifted back to seeking God’s favorable response for something. For instance, paying a priest to say a quick mass could get your dead loved one out of purgatory a little faster. The more masses, the quicker he or she could get out. Sort of like TSA precheck financed with bribes to the agents, and a great money maker it was.
500 hundred years ago things had become so bad that a German priest named Martin Luther nailed 95 complaints to the door of his small town church, asked for debate, and demanded reform. It didn’t stay local. Thanks to the printing press, it got published and sent around the Holy Roman Empire setting fire to the Reformation. Thirty years later the Church had divided into Protestants and Roman Catholics, and both had reformed their ways. Since then, the Church has continued to divide into various sects and denominations, each with it’s own understanding of what Christianity means, and disagreements about altars and sacrifice.
Most Protestant churches don’t have altars. They don’t even like the word. Many have Lord’s Tables, used occasionally for a form of Holy Communion not considered to be sacrificial in any way. Many others don’t even have that – just a performance space for speakers and musicians. Churches remaining in the Catholic tradition: Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians in the U.S.), Lutherans, and some others, do have altars. And they are called that because they remain places of sacrifice, in the old sense of presenting ourselves as holy and reasonable sacrifices to God as we are fed with the holy food and drink of bread and wine in which Christ is truly present.
So, what about your altars. It’s two part answer. First, I love them. Their design invites the viewer into a sacred space where intimacy with God, as they understand God, may happen. Sacred moments like that make the viewer sacred, at least for the moment, and the sacrifice has taken place, no ritual required. Yes, but where’s the altar, the table? In the mind of the viewer. Maybe not so oddly enough, your altars are in the shape of a basilica apse. Here’s the second and last part of this too long note. An apse is the semicircular space behind the altar in a basilica style churchIn Roman times a basilica was something like a town hall or legislative assembly building. The governor would sit on a raised platform in the apse to do whatever Roman governors did. As the early Christian church grew out of house churches and into dedicated buildings, it copied the basilica style as a statement that it is God and not the emperor who sits in judgment, and it is God and not the emperor to whom Christians give their ultimate loyalty. The style is still common today.
So your altars reside in the apsides (that’s the plural I guess) you have created, there for each viewer to discover in her or his own way.
My Anglian tradition is heavily laden with Celtic Christianity ways of thinking, one of which is the idea of thin placesThin places can exist anywhere at anytime, and are places where the boundary is very thin between the holy and the profane, heaven and earth, material and spiritual. The drawings that adorn your altar spaces evoke, for me, the idea of thin places, and invite the possibility that they may become one, at least for a few seconds.
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