From Altar to Table – Who Cares?

Holy Thursday: Last Supper – First Mass – First Eucharist – First Communion – First Holy Orders – by JOOS van Wassenhove – from Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

I loath the way the Lord’s Supper is handled in most churches. And I am not even referring to those haute innovators of things like the U2charist (yeah, it’s real, no joke). If anything it is the flippancy, thoughtlessness, irreverence, and general boring nature of the practice.

One of the things that has always intrigued me is the incredibly strong stand many take on the “symbolic” nature of the sacrament. It reminds me of the way many churches have insipid statements of faith, yet reserve half a page for their nuanced views of the rapture. “All this is just reminding us of some stuff Jesus did…so come get some, ya’ll,” might as well be all we ever say about the meal in most churches. If one thing is for sure it is that the table is NOT an altar. That is for those Roman Catholics.

In his doctoral dissertation that deserves a much wider following than it currently has, Hughes Oliphant Old makes a great point –

It is interesting to reflect on the theology implied by this change from altar to table. This change would never have been necessary if the early Reformed Church had understood the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as being merely memorial of Christ’s sacrifice. If the bread had been only a symbol of Christ’s body, then the altar could have been understood in the same way as only a symbol of Golgotha. It was because the Reformers believed that in the Lord’s Supper God really did something that they wanted the outward sign to correspond with what God did do, that is, feed his people. The meal was the symbol or sign which God himself had given for the spiritual food (1 Cor. 10:3-4) which he in truth gave. – The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship, pg. 28

I very much doubt the vast majority of Protestants out there would like to think of the table on which the Communion meal is laid as an altar, but, as Old so adeptly points out, if you think it is all just symbolic then who cares? Then again, maybe the Reformers had a point.

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