03 May 2011

Tabling the Altar

One of the greatest things about escaping my former parish was the ontological certainty that I would never again have to endure the execrably puerile ditty "Table of Plenty" in the one place that ought to be a refuge from the destruction of culture. 

With a nod to Jeff Geerling's facebook page, I read this insightful blog post about about the nature of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the ill-fitting nomenclature of the altar being described, even by Catholics, as a "table":

Table Talk

Is this a table?

I've been away for the better part of the past week, and just tonight I arrived home to find an article from a Catholic publication with the following observations about Sunday Mass:

"and the missed opportunities to embrace our loved ones and the stranger now coalesce in the bread and wine that is shared by all of us without discrimination or distinction."

"...Catholics have a weekly opportunity to come around a common family table."

"Each Sunday, amidst all our human activity, we have an occasion to slow down and bring our stories to the table of faith."

"Around the table, we simply slow down the cadence of our world and hearts and renew our mission before God's love."

"...but deep inside we trust that our running to and from has been transformed by the table bread and the words we have heard."

All in all, "table" was used six times in a relatively short article about Sunday Mass.

This all sounds benign, right? Warm and comforting to be sure. As you can tell from the quotes, the basic gist of the piece is that, in coming together as a family around a common table, Catholics are refreshed by meal and solidarity to face the frenetic world "out there." While innocent sounding enough, and surely with the best of intentions on the part of the author, the piece represents an all-too-common occurrence in Catholic discussions that reduces the Real Presence and the altar of sacrifice (and all that those words imply) to a less precisely definable and certainly more malleable concept of "table of faith."

As statistics make painfully clear, belief in and awareness of the Catholic Doctrine on the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist among Catholics is abysmally low. This is inexcusable, but not surprising. American society, since its beginning, has been heavily imbibed with a Protestant gloss that, unfortunately surfaces even within the Catholic Church in terms of how theological realities are understood and explained. Many Catholics believe the Eucharist is merely a symbol, an "it" rather than a Person, and that the "community" is the heart of the Church. It is our "coming together" as a family that constitutes the nodal of the Church. The Eucharist then, is a symbol of our bond of love. You see how a concrete definition of what, rather Who, the Eucharist is becomes more hazy as we focus more on ourselves? Incidentally, I've always taken to Flannery O'Connor's quip to a Protestant friend that, "If the Eucharist is just a symbol, then to hell with it."

Given the catechetical lacuna in the country regarding the teaching on the Real Presence, articles about the Holy Eucharist that appear in Catholic publications should veer away from the more Protestant-inspired lexicon of words like "table" and "table bread" and "bread and wine" and take up a more Catholic-derived parlance of words like "altar" and "sacrifice," "Body and Blood." "The altar of sacrifice" so much more strongly evokes a correct theological and liturgical construct than the rarefied and less earthy formula of "table of faith." I've found that one of Catholicism's most appealing traits lies in its earthiness: faith and works, grace and nature, soul and body.

To be honest, I would have struck the phrases "bread and wine" and "table bread" altogether. We're talking about Christ here! The former is downright Protestant in tenor, the latter smacks of table snacks, and "bread" should have at least appeared as "Bread." "Wine" should never be used when referring to the Precious Blood. This is not mere quibbling or scrupulosity over nomenclature. Over time, how we talk about reality, the words we choose, etc., has dire and far-reaching consequences on the belief and convictions of a people. When uncatechized or misinformed Catholics read over and over again about the "bread and wine" they receive at Mass, what (instead of Who) are they likely to think they are receiving?

Furthermore, the Church's teaching on the worthiness of individual Catholics to be able to receive Holy Communion does indeed make distinctions in terms of who may receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, i.e., those practicing Catholics who are in the state of grace, free of mortal sin. There is certainly no distinction when it comes to race, or social status, but when it comes to spiritual preparation, we need to be informed.

This was a piece that underperformed on a supremely important topic.


Long-Skirts said...

Flannery O'Connor's quip to a Protestant friend that, "If the Eucharist is just a symbol then to hell with it."


To the Nuclear
Plant I went
With wafered host
I was hell-bent.

Exposed the wafered
Un-Consecrated host
To radiation
Now nuked toast.

Offered heretic
"Taste and see."
"Oh no!" He cried
"That's not for me!"

"But look, " I said,
"Nothings changed...
A still white wafered
Host arranged."

"Though looks the same
Could do much harm!"
The heretic knew
Exclaimed with alarm.

As Catholics know
A spiritual radiation
Daily at Mass
The Transubstantiation!

Methodist Jim said...

This is not, of course, the place for a primer on distinctions in Protestant theology. However, as likely the lone Protestant regular reader of this blog, I'd like to remind all that those distinctions do exist. And, further, that there is some common understanding - for example - between the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the United Methodist Church (to which I belong) on the nature of the Eucharist. A formal document has been signed by those three churches citing that particular understanding. Our churches don't, of course, agree on everything, but we're probably closer than some would think. And, FYI, though I am a Protestant, I would agree with Flannery O'Connor's quip that "if the Eucharist is just a symbol, then to hell with it." And many other Protestants would too.

thetimman said...

Though for the record, Methodist Jim, you will acknowledge that a Methodist does not believe in Transubstantiation, nor that Jesus Christ is present Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the sacred species.

Methodist Jim said...

I wouldn't presume to speak for all Methodists. And without extended discussion into definitions and semantics, I wouldn't try to answer the question quickly. So, please see the official statement from the UM Church in 2004 at this link:


See, specifically, "The Presence of Christ" beginning on p. 11.

(Sorry, I don't know how to make it a live link, you'll have to cut and paste.)

And, please do forgive the error in my prior post, the Joint Declaration between Methodists, Catholics, and Lutherans is not on Communion/Eucharist but on the Doctrine of Justification. Sorry.

Methodist Jim said...

And, by the way, please don't get me wrong, I actually like what Geerling has to say. From his point of view, and from a Catholic theology, he's certainly welcome to be wary of Catholic churches over-Protestantizing themselves. My only point to Mr. Geerling would be to remind him that not all Protestants hold Communion to be "just a symbol."

pfinley said...

I blame Us, The so called "Traditional catholics" . We whined when people used the term "altar Of Sacrafice", and "Altar of the Tabernacle" , because we were bitter as to where the tabernacle was placed. Well now the Altar became table -

we also stood by while altars became essentially tables - There is no longer the requirement for altars to be stone or solid objects..Altars can be wood...what are tables usually made out of...wood. I know I am sounding Monty Python here, but, this was coming for a while - Wooden objects with 4 legs are tables - Solid objects are altars - Heck we dont even require altar stones anymore - its more a "Good Suggestion" ... the blood of the martyrs must be boiling indeed - The altar came from celebrating at the tombs of those who came before us..and Died for the faith.. where is the connection now

StGuyFawkes said...

The Holy Mass is the bloodless sacrifice of Christ on Calvary and it has its antecedents in the sacrifice of Abraham and all the Jewish rituals of sacrifice. A blood sacrifice takes place upon an altar, not a table.

Nonetheless, the Mass first took place at the Last Supper where there was indeed a table. Therefore, the significance of “table” cannot be summarily dismissed. However, that meal was itself an enactment of the upcoming Sacrifice, and the relationship between Sacrifice and meal desperately needs parsing out.

To parse the matter out we must see that here we have a mixture of sacred images whereby the table is an altar, and the altar is a table. However, the significance of sacrificial altar must take precedence over the image of the table. Put simply, in the shadow of Calvary, the table meal which distributes through the Church the graces of Calvary is a continuation of Calvary, not the reverse.

The deterioration of the liturgy has come from turning the ontological relationship between Calvary and Eucharist upside down. Many Novus Ordo Masses attempt to say that the presence of the congregants suffices to make for a kind of grace irrespective of the salvation event on the cross.

To accept this is to take up the protestant position that the event on Golgotha took place once, and for all time, because it was so singular that no sacrament can emanate from it, only symbols and remembrances.

Our position as Catholics is that the suffering of Christ on Calvary and his redemption is ongoing and it is our job to perfect that suffering with our own, as St. Paul said.

The difference between the Catholic and Protestant accounts of Calvary and the Last Supper is a difference of Metaphysical Being and Time. We think that Golgotha continues every instant. Protestants see it as once and done.

There is nothing particularly ignoble about the Protestant view. But it does lead to different implications as to how Christ continues among us.

long pants said...

"Tabernacle" pfinley? You mean the fancy box where we keep the bread?

Michael said...

You know that painting, the Adoration of the Lamb, is in Ghent, Belgium. That's about an hour away from my HOME! GO BELGIUM!

Anonymous said...

While I share Mr. Geerling's frustration, I believe there can be a valid balance between both expressions. In John 6, Jesus himself referred to the Eucharist as the Bread of Life; a term echoed in the Roman Canon (Panem sanctum vitae aeternae). At the same time, the Roman Canon is also clear the substance is the Body and Blood of Christ (sacrosanctum Filii tui Corpus et Sanguinem sumpserimus). The problem arises when bread, wine, table, etc. is used almost exclusively (which happens in many Catholic circles). This leads the faithful to question the real presence. Nevertheless, Bread of Life and Cup of Salvation are valid expressions for the Eucharist, as the Church continues to use them in the Roman Canon.

Anonymous said...

There is respectful discussion and wholesome disputation and there is outright, intended offense. Please, thetimman, delete past and future posts from "long pants." His or her reference to the tabernacle as "the fancy box where we keep the bread" can't be anything but a measured attack on Catholic Eucharistic belief and strips her/him of any credential to participate here in adult discussions.