Q: Does the priest ever venerate the altar in the Liturgy of the Word?
A: Of all the symbols in the church, the altar occupies the pre-eminent place among the signs of Christ in the church building. Indeed, “it is rightly forbidden both by custom and by liturgical law to dedicate a church without dedicating the altar” (Order for the Dedication of a Church and an Altar (ODCA), III.1)—a church is not a church without an altar. For the priest to lead any kind of liturgical prayer in the church without at least reverencing the altar would be akin to walking past one’s spouse without at least saying hello. By means of “the anointing with Chrism the altar is made a symbol of Christ who, before all others, is and is called, ‘The Anointed One’” (ODCA, II.16.a). The altar is Christ. Indeed, the church is called the “community of the altar” (LG 26). Even as the people do not physically encircle the altar, they are enumerated among the “circle of offerers” who are said to surround the altar (circumstantes). This is why the altar is venerated with a kiss after it is reverenced with a profound bow when the entrance procession reaches the sanctuary, whether at Mass, or at a liturgy of the word outside Mass.
The identification of the altar with Christ means that it is the principal sign-object around which prayer is offered in the church, since Christ is the one mediator between God and men. Even when the altar is not being used to offer the Eucharistic Sacrifice, our deportment around the altar illustrates its central place in the life of the church at prayer. Outside the liturgy, a “deep bow is made to the altar by all who enter the sanctuary (chancel), leave it, or pass before the altar” (Ceremonial of Bishops (CB) 72). The altar is the perpetual “sign of Christ” in the church building, and so the visible sign of he who is “the source of the Church’s unity and of fraternal harmony” (ODCA, IV.48). Currently, the celebrant venerates the altar with a kiss at both at the beginning and end of Mass (CB 73). Moreover, during the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, the bishop venerates the altar with a kiss at the beginning and end of a solemn celebration of morning or evening prayer (CB 196) and then incenses the altar during the singing of the Benedictus and the Magnificat (CB 204).
The principal source for arguing for the venerating of the altar with a kiss, even in liturgical celebrations where Mass is not being celebrated, comes from the Ceremonial of Bishops, where it is said that a “Celebration of the word of God should be patterned on the structure of the liturgy of the word at Mass” (CB 224). Wearing the miter and carrying the crozier, the bishop carries out “the introductory rites,” which include the entrance chant, greeting, and opening prayer (CB 226). In the common way of seeing things, the greeting in the introductory rites consists of a single greeting of the people: “Peace be with you,” to which the people respond, “And with your spirit.” Nevertheless, in the “traditional practice of the Roman Rite” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) 42), the greetings are more diffuse than often recognized. Since at least the seventh century (and likely as far back as the fourth), the first thing that occurred when the entrance procession “reached the altar was a series of greetings—kisses, according to ancient custom.” These greetings were delivered to the “co-liturgists and also to the two objects most intimately connected with the liturgy, objects which represented Christ, the Gospel book and the altar.” The current General Instruction of the Roman Missal describes the actions that follow when the entrance procession reaches the altar as the “Salutatio altaris et populi congregati”—literally, the “greeting of the altar and of the assembled people” (GIRM 49). Where the ministers are directed to “reverence the altar with a profound bow,” the word “reverence” translates saluto, “to greet, hail, salute.” Occasionally, “reverence” is used as a catchall for both reverencing the altar with a bow and venerating the altar with a kiss, as when the Ceremonial of Bishops describes the opening Mass for a diocesan synod: The bishop “reverences the altar and incenses it…then goes to the cathedra” (CB 1171). Therefore, it might be best to see both the bow and the kiss as part of the salutatio altaris.
Regardless of whether Mass is being celebrated, the kissing of the altar is understood as an act of the veneration that the altar itself calls forth, as a sign of Christ. Indeed, the kissing of the altar might ultimately be seen as a sign of adoration toward Christ himself. As Pope Benedict puts it, “The Latin word for adoration is ad-oratio—mouth to mouth contact, a kiss, an embrace, and hence, ultimately love.”
—Answered by the Editors
- Joseph A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development, trans. Francis A. Brunner (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1951), vol. 2, p. 162, 166. ↑
- Ibid., vol. 1, p. 314–15. ↑
- Ibid., p. 311. ↑
- Benedict XVI, God’s Revolution: World Youth Day and Other Cologne Talks (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 59. ↑