QUESTION: My children have asked why the priest and deacon kiss the altar at the beginning of Mass. I thought it had something to do with relics of the saints in the altar, but was not sure.
ANSWER: The practice of having the ordained ministers reverence (kiss) the altar at the beginning of Mass is a long-standing custom in the Catholic Church. But it is important to place the emphasis where it belongs, that is, on the altar itself.
The altar is first a sign of Christ. The church attempts to impress this upon us in several ways. For example, the altar is historically made of stone or some durable material that was seen to represent Christ as well as his promise to remain within his church. Altars were placed within churches in positions of centrality and prominence to clearly symbolize the position of Christ as central to our lives and the life of the church. The American bishops’ document “Built of Living Stones” (Nov. 16, 2000) says: “Since the church teaches that ‘the altar is Christ,’ its composition should reflect the nobility, beauty, strength and simplicity of the one it represents” (Article 73).
In the early centuries of the church, altars were often set over or near the burial place of a Christian martyr. Early Christian prayer paid special honor to those who had given their lives in witness to faith in Christ.
In the church’s history, since it was not always possible to build churches and altars near such burial sites, relics of the saints were brought to the altars. They were placed either underneath the altar or later within a small space placed in the front or the back.
This use of relics within an altar was a sign of reverence for those Christians who had lived especially virtuous lives. It was also an attempt to maintain some type of communion with these historical members of the body of Christ (especially since they too had been nourished at the table of the Eucharist).
The custom of placing small relics of martyrs or other saints into an altar underwent reflection and discussion during the Second Vatican Council. In directives issued following the council, in new churches relics of martyrs or other saints may be placed beneath the altar, as long as the relics are of a size sufficient for them to be recognizable as parts of a human body and that they have undoubted authenticity. Church documents clearly indicate that placing relics under an altar is no longer required.
This brings us back to the original emphasis on the centrality of the altar itself as a sign of Christ within the church. The reverence (kiss) of the altar by the ordained ministers at the beginning of the Eucharist is a clear and powerful sign of the unity of the church with Christ. This more recent change regarding relics in altars was in no way intended to lessen respect for the saints who we feel close to in the celebration of every Mass. It is an attempt by the church to proclaim the altar as central to liturgical life and to provide to it respect and reverence.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.