As the Entrance procession draws to its close something rather unusual happens! Upon entering the sanctuary, (the part of the Church where the Altar and Tabernacle are located) the priest and deacon enter the sanctuary and kiss the altar as a sign of reverence and veneration. Many of us who go to Mass all the time may hardly notice this gesture. But to someone observing Mass for the first time this gesture may seem quite unusual and raise questions. Why kiss an altar? Where did this gesture come from and what does it mean?
The significance of this kiss has had the following historical development: At first it was intended simply for the altar itself where the Sacrifice of the Lord would occur. Subsequently this idea was enlarged to include the understanding that the altar built of stone represented Christ himself, the rock, the cornerstone. (Cf. 1 Cor. 10:4). Later, as the relics of saints were ordinarily placed within the altar stone, the kiss was also seen as a salutation of the saint and through the saint the whole Church Triumphant.
But why is there a kiss, rather than a bow or some other salutation? The kiss was actually very common in ancient culture. The temple was honored by kissing the threshold. In pagan culture it was common to greet the images of the gods either by kissing it directly or throwing a kiss. Likewise it was not uncommon in the ancient world to kiss the family meal table with a kiss before the meal. Hence it was not surprising to find the practice brought into Christian worship.
Until the 13th century it was customary at Rome to kiss the altar only upon coming in for Mass and departing. However, in the later Middle Ages the kissing of the altar seems to have been multiplied. In the Tridentine Missal the altar was kissed numerous times:
- 1. At the beginning of the Mass
- 2. Any time the priest turned away from the altar, faced the people and addressed them. According to one explanation the priest does this on order to confirm his communion with the Church Triumphant in heaven and then turns to greet the Church on earth.
- 3. At the words ex hac altare participatione (Then as we receive from this altar…) in the canon.
- 4. Before the sign of peace. Again an explanation advanced is that the priest kisses the altar here in order to receive the kiss from Christ (whom the altar represents) in order to pass it on to others.
- 5. Upon leaving the altar at the end of the Mass.
Today the altar is kissed only twice in conformity with the earlier tradition.
The design of Altars has varied over the years. The current widespread practice of celebrating Mass facing the people has tended to require a rather simple table form to modern altars. But Mass facing the people is a rather recent phenomenon. Until very recently Mass was everywhere celebrated with the priest and people facing the same direction toward the East or at least toward the Crucifix and tabernacle (if there was one on the altar). This meant that altar design could be much more elaborate. Altars tended to back up onto the apse wall and had a vertical dimension that was often quite splendid and decorative. (See photo at left). The Second Vatican Council directed that new altars should be free standing, that is they should not be attached to the wall, allowing the priest to walk around all four sides. Tragically this led some to conclude that many beautiful older altars should be removed. This was not however what the Council directed; only that new altars should not be attached to the wall. While this tends to imply a simpler design, it is not necessarily required that this be so since it is still possible to place ornate designs and an elaborate reredos in the area behind the altar if this is desired.
The following video shows the temporary transformation of a simple table altar to an altar more suited for the celebration of the Latin Mass in the extraordinary form. It is quite a dramatic transformation but done quite swiftly.