We are on holy ground when we come to Mass and we must not take this lightly. Rather, Guardini tells us: "It is essential for every one of us to experience at some time or another the fear of the Lord, to be repelled by Him from the sacred place, that we may know with all our being that God is God and we are but man. Trust in God, nearness to Him and security in Him remain thin and feeble when personal knowledge of God’s exclusive majesty and awful sanctity do not counterbalance them. We do well to pray God for this experience, and the place where it is most likely to be granted us is before His altar."
Without having had this experience one wonders how we can truly appreciate the depth of God's love for us and His desire to draw near to us. He comes down to us in order to lift us up to Him. Not to stand before the altar with a certain amount of fear and trembling in the face of a love that is profound and fierce smacks of presumption. As we draw close to the altar we pass over the threshold into the Paschal Mystery.
WE HAVE just distinguished between God’s special presence in His own house and His all-sustaining omnipresence in the world He created. We also replied to the current objection that man can experience God equally well everywhere. Of course, this is possible, as it is also possible to experience everywhere the illusion of false Christianity more readily than genuine contact with the Creator of the world. Moreover, there is always the disquieting suspicion that those who insist on their encounters with God in woods and cowers do not have in mind the God of revelation, but a vague, pantheistic “Mother Nature” or mysterious “Life Force,” or whatever else these questionable varieties of “religious experience” are called. The real God has no resemblance with the “God” such experiences presuppose. He speaks in the plain, exact words of His messengers through the person, life and death of Jesus Christ. He challenges the world, arousing it from its captivity, demanding that it recognize the truth and be converted. The otherness of that conversion is stressed by the fact that the celebration of God’s mystery does not take place just anywhere: neither in the spaciousness of nature, nor in the intimacy of a home, but in the unique, clearly circumscribed area of the church. Thus we find the constantly repeated procedure: The believer goes to the house of God, crosses the threshold and enters the sacred room within. This is an important part of genuine piety. He remains “present,” listens, speaks, acts, serves. Then he leaves, returns to the world of men or to the private realm of his home, taking with him what he has experienced as instruction, guidance, and strength.
There is also a special order established within the sacred interior. It is essential to the liturgy that the important acts of which it is composed are not left to chance or to the momentary spiritual situation, but are arranged and specified with the greatest care. The Lord’s memorial sacrifice cannot take place anywhere in the church, but only at one particular spot, the altar.
The altar is a great mystery. Its religious archetype is to be found in almost all faiths; indeed, I doubt that it is fundamentally absent from any. It appears in the Old Testament. Precise laws determine how it is to be fashioned, cared for, served. In the New Testament it is not actually discussed; but we do encounter it, for example, in the visions of the Apocalypse. When the books of the New Testament were being written, the altar was the table at which the congregation celebrated the sacred Supper. Very soon, however, it began to take on its own characteristics, and in the catacombs we find it in its earliest form. What then is the altar? Its meaning is probably most clearly suggested by two images: it is threshold and it is table.
Threshold is door, and it has a double significance: border and crossing over. It indicates where one thing ends and another begins. The border which marks the end of the old makes possible entry into the new. As a threshold, the altar creates first of all the border between the realm of the world and the realm of God. The altar reminds us of the remoteness in which He lives “beyond the altar,” as we might say, meaning divine distance; or “above the altar,” meaning divine loftiness both to be understood of course not spatially, but spiritually. They mean that God is the Intangible One, far removed from all approaching, from all grasping; that He is the all-powerful, Majestic One immeasurably exalted above earthly things and earthly striving. Such breadth and height are founded not on measure, but on God’s essence: His holiness, to which man of himself has no access.
On the other hand, this is not to be understood merely spiritually, or rather, merely intellectually. In the liturgy everything is symbolical. But symbol is more than a corporal form representing something incorporeal. Let us take, for example, a representation of Justice: a woman, blindfolded, and holding scales in her hands. Such justice is not apparent. First one must be instructed that the bandaged eyes mean that a judge is no respecter of persons; the scales, that to each is to be measured out is exact due. This is allegory whose meaning is not directly perceived.
The liturgy also contains allegories; but its basic forms are symbols. Their meaning is actually hidden, yet it reveals itself in a particular thing or person, much as the human soul, itself invisible, becomes perceptible, approachable in the expression and movements of a face. So is it in the Church. The altar is not an allegory, but a symbol. The thoughtful believer does not have to be taught that it is a border, that “above it” stretch inaccessible heights and “beyond it” the reaches of divine remoteness; somehow he is aware of this.
To grasp the mystery all that is necessary on the part of the believer is intrinsic readiness and calm reflection; then his heart will respond with reverence. In a very vital hour he may even have an experience somewhat similar to that of Moses when he guarded his flocks in the loneliness of Mount Horeb. Suddenly “The Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he saw that the bush was on fire and was not burnt. And Moses said: I will go and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he went forward to see, he called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: Moses, Moses. And he answered: Here I am. And he said: Come not nigh hither. Put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3: 2-5).
It is essential for every one of us to experience at some time or another the fear of the Lord, to be repelled by Him from the sacred place, that we may know with all our being that God is God and we are but man. Trust in God, nearness to Him and security in Him remain thin and feeble when personal knowledge of God’s exclusive majesty and awful sanctity do not counterbalance them. We do well to pray God for this experience, and the place where it is most likely to be granted us is before His altar.
Threshold is not, however, only borderline; it is also crossing over. One can step over it into the adjacent room, or, standing on it, receive him who comes from the other side. It is something that unites, a place of contact and encounter. This too is contained in the symbol of the altar. The essence of revelation is the news that God loves us. God’s love is not simply the love which we find also in ourselves, infinitely intensified. Inconceivable mystery, it had to be revealed: an unheard-of act that we can begin to fathom only when it is clear to us who God is and who we are. Its real expression is to be found in the tremendous event of the Incarnation, when God abandoned His sacred reserve, came to us, became one of us, sharing with us human life and human destiny. Now He is with us, “on our side.” Such is His love, and it creates a nearness that man alone never could have conceived. All this is expressed by the altar. It reminds us that God turns to us; from His heights He steps down to us; out of His remoteness He approaches us. The altar is the sign of God’s presence among us, in us. And the same altar suggests further that there is a way leading us, remote, isolated creatures that we are, back to our Creator; from the depths of our sin “up” to His holiness; that we can follow it to be sure, not on our own strength, but on that which His grace supplies. We can cross the border only because God crossed it to come to us. His descent draws us upwards. He Himself, the One-Who-Has-Come, is “the way, and the truth, and the life.”
Knowledge of the possibility of passing above and beyond is a primordial Christian experience which most intimately affects man’s relations to God (a passing that is not simple continuation along a known route, but a traversing of certain limits). The realms that it separates are different; between them stands a door which can open but also close. We are enabled to make the passage by hope, which declares it possible (but only when we heed an innate reticence, which cautions that it is never self-understood). The instant hope becomes importunity or trust presumption, the instant the sacred security of grace lapses into habit, the door closes and most firmly when its existence has been entirely forgotten and the believer innocently assumes that all is as it should be. At this point too we do well to ask that we may realize vividly that we are “children” of “the Father’s house,” yet must stand “in fear and trembling.”
“Threshold” really lies everywhere in the simple fact that God is Creator, man creature; this fact is heightened by man’s sinfulness, which makes him unable to stand before the Holy God. Yet God has stooped to us in an act of saving love and laid out for us the road to Himself. Thus everywhere we are confronted by sacred barriers repelling us, but also by the possibility of their opening for us. What we call prayer is the mysterious process of that opening.
Every time we invoke God, we approach His threshold and pass over it. In the altar the barrier presents itself in a form symbolizing God’s revelation, for there in the mystery of the Mass it comes to its own in a very special way. Through Christ’s self-sacrifice in salutary death, a sacrifice which presupposed the Incarnation of God’s Son, the altar-threshold appears most clearly as the borderline which shows who Holy God is and what our sin. But the altar-threshold is also the crossing-over par excellence, because God became man so that we might become “partakers of the divine nature.” The altar is indeed the “holy place” before which we can say as we can nowhere else: “I am here, O Lord.”