The altar and sanctuary - Page 2
In England, in 1071 AD, that is five years after the landing of William the Conqueror, it was ordered by Archbishop Lanfranc that every altar, or at any rate the flat top of the altar should be made of stone. It was consecrated by a bishop who anointed it with holy oil in the form of a cross at the four corners and in the middle, and crosses were also cut into the stone at these points in memory of Our Lord’s five wounds in his hands and feet and side. It was also the custom to enclose relics of a saint in front of the altar. The relic might be a bone of a martyr or part of a saint’s hair. This custom goes back to the days when the Christians celebrated the Eucharist at the tombs in the catacombs where the bodies of the martyrs were buried. But in 1550 AD, almost all the stone altars in England were broken up by what has been called “the ring of robbers who surrounded the throne” of Edward VI. (1)
So today in most churches the altars are of wood, but it is the custom to set in the top an altar stone. This is about a foot square, and is marked with five crosses. It is on this stone that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are consecrated.
Crucifix and candles
In the middle of the altar or on the wall behind it there is usually crucifix. This recalls that first Good Friday when Jesus offered himself to God for our salvation. The reason why we have it on the altar is that in the Eucharist what we offer to God is Jesus himself, once Crucified and now Risen and Ascended. On either side of the crucifix are the candles. There may be two, four or six. You will also see two tall, standard candlesticks at the bottom of the altar steps one on either side. Sometimes these candlesticks are on the same level as the altar.
During the 40 days from Easter Day to Ascension Day a large, decorated candle stands in the sanctuary and is lit at the Eucharist and at Evensong. It is called the Paschal – that is, Easter – Candle and represents the presence of the Risen Christ with his disciples and with us.
All of these candles remind us of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, and they are lit in his honour. At the time of the Eucharist a stand or cushion is put on the altar for the altar book to rest on. Near the altar is the credence table. We shall be talking about that in our next session. In some churches a recess in the wall is used as a credence table.