Not long ago I was in a church where the altar caught my attention. Instead of two candlesticks, this altar had two large, round objects that looked like hibachi grills. Each was sending a large flame upward, making quite an effect. I whispered to a friend that this particular altar made me hungry—it made think of grilling. My friend had a slightly different theological perspective as she suggested the candle-grills might be better suited to s’mores.
After our slightly naughty thoughts, it occurred to me that in some ways, the grills are appropriate to an altar. What is an altar, after all? An altar, in its truest sense, is not meant to be a beautifully carved thing of stone, covered by gorgeous cloth, with two very tasteful candles burning. An altar is where people of faith have offered animals as sacrifice, a place of blood and guts.
When we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we gather around an altar and say or sing, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” While our stylized prayers and graceful gestures point to bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Christ really present, behind it all, of course, is Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. And that sacrifice included blood and pain, horror and death.
The first scripture reading on Maundy Thursday is the Passover account from Exodus. Though the people themselves have, to some extent, already served as living sacrifices during their time in slavery, they are instructed further to sacrifice a lamb, one per family. The blood of the lamb is used to mark the doorway of each home. Through the miracle of the Passover, the blood-marked passage becomes a way forward, an open door to the future, and a new life.
There are many ways to understand and pray through the idea of sacrifice. Reformed theology would underscore the one, sufficient, and perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. We are saved through the mystery of grace because of that sacrifice. A more catholic theology would argue that in the sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist, Christ is present again for us and with us. Also, the Eucharist invites us to offer ourselves in sacrifice to God “to the praise and glory of God’s Name, to our benefit and that of all God’s holy Church.”
One of the great hymns of the Church gives thanks for the sacrifice of Christ and sings of the way his blood opens the door to eternal life.
O saving Victim, opening wide
the gate of heaven to us below,
our foes press on from every side,
thine aid supply, the strength bestow.
All praise and thanks to thee ascend
for evermore, blest One in Three;
O grant us life that shall not end
in our true native land with thee. Amen.
On Maundy Thursday, we move from the self-offering of ourselves in the washing of feet to the self-offering of Christ in the Eucharist. As we receive his Body and Blood, may the Spirit teach us about sacrifice, so that we might be more open to God’s power to renew, change, and create.