A Violent and Bloody Sacrifice
What perhaps got the 16th century protestant reformers more upset than anything else when it came to the Roman Catholic understanding of the Mass was the suggestion that in the Mass a sacrifice was taking place. The Sacrifice of the Mass was something that they rejected altogether.
I am aware that protestants often caricature Roman Catholic teaching on this, and I certainly don't want to be guilty of that myself, but it is clear that many did and do believe that in the Mass Christ is being offered again to God and that this sacrifice can bring benefits that can be applied to people or situations. This is where the idea of masses 'for the dead' came from and why the Mass had value even when people didn't actually partake of the bread and the wine. The benefit lay in the event itself.
The reformers, however, believed that Christ died 'once for all' and that his was an unrepeatable sacrifice. The idea that Christ was being offered again by the priest seemed to them completely to undermine the sufficiency of the work of Christ. They not only then rejected any such thought, they rejected any practice that might even suggest it, and so out when priests and out when any talk of altars in churches. I have known many Christians today who get very upset when we call the table at the front of the Church, an altar.
It is surely right that we should reject any suggestion that Christ's death is anything other than perfect and sufficient for our salvation. Maybe, however, we shouldn't be quite so squeemish about talk of altars and maybe we should be careful of rejecting the association of the Eucharist with a sacrifice altogether.
Last night in our second Lent Study, we saw how the Last Supper was a Passover Meal and how the Passover commemorated the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. They were commanded by God to slaughter a lamb and put its blood on the door post so that the Lord would pass over the Israelites homes and spare them the death of their first born in the 10th plague. In the Last Supper, Jesus institutes a new Passover celebration to remember the sacrifice he is about to offer of himself. There is to be a new covenant in his blood. A deliverance this time from slavery to sin.
The Lord's Supper then is about sacrifice and death, about blood and a new covenant to save us from sin. At the Eucharist, we may not be offering a new sacrifice, but we are remembering a sacrifice without which we would not have any hope of life. The Eucharist is about a death that brings life to the dead.
Many talk about the Eucharist as celebrating the gifts of God in creation. They see it as a thanksgiving for all that God has given to us and an offering of ourselves to his service. It is a celebration of life. It is right that there is this to it. It is, however, far more important in the Eucharist that we focus on the death of Christ for us - for that was rather our Lord's point. We remember what he has done for us by his death in the past, we seek the benefits of his death in the present as we ask forgiveness for our sins, and we proclaim, as Paul puts it, his death until he comes.
Seen like this, the word altar seems to be entirely appropriate!