It was not until the middle ages that the altars of the Christian
church were placed against the chancel wall. This was done for the purpose
of accenting the medieval distortion of the Lord’s Supper, which made it a propitiatory sacrifice. The mistaken belief was that Christ’s body and blood were being offered again each time the Lord’s
Supper was celebrated, to atone for sins once again, neglecting the understanding that Jesus accomplished our atonement once-for-all,
on the cross of Calvary and that the Lord’s Supper is a distribution of the benefits through Jesus’ body and blood
in which we receive forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation (I Corinthians 10:16; Luke 22:27).
While Martin Luther strongly wanted to maintain the real presence of
Jesus’ body and blood in the sacrament as it is consecrated, distributed and received, he was adamant that the Eucharist
was not a re-sacrificing of Jesus over and over again. In fact, Luther called
that false teaching a blasphemy. And in His careful reforms of the Mass
liturgy, one of the suggestions he made was that, like the early church, that Lutherans pull the altars away from the chancel
wall so that the pastor can face the people for the consecration (the Words of Institution).
After all, Jesus was sitting at table with the twelve in the upper room and spoke to them when He instituted the Blessed
Sacrament. And so when the pastor speaks the Words of Institution “in
the stead and by the command of Christ” he speaks them to the people over the bread and wine. Those words are Gospel ministry, our Confessions state (Ap. XXIV).
Luther advocated a free standing altar in his comments on his 1526 [Deutsche
Messe] German Mass [Luther’s Works, American Edition,
Vol. 53 p.69]. His preference was for the pastor to face the people when proclaiming
the words of institution since these words were the Gospel of the service of Holy Communion.
Luther wrote: “In the true
mass, however, of real Christians, the altar should not remain where it is, and the priest should always face the people as
Christ doubtlessly did in the Last Supper.”
Hence we see this is perfectly Lutheran.
free standing altar is hardly an innovation in Christianity. It is the pattern
of the house churches, before Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, and the early church, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine. Historic research and a revival in reformation studies have led many congregations to bring the altar back
to the people and have the pastor speak to the people instead of the wall. It is ironic, then, that it was the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic
Church which initiated a popular return to a freestanding altar, taking Luther’s suggestion seriously. Now, interestingly, many traditional Roman Catholics are reacting against this move, arguing that a freestanding
altar does not emphasize a Roman Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice --- and they are right! It emphasizes a biblical, traditional, Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist as
a means of grace, a mysterious meal in which Christ’s body and blood are given for the forgiveness of sins.
The freestanding altar is both
a table and a place of making the sacrifice of thanksgiving and prayer. In
its design it should serve both functions. In this the freestanding altar
may be used from both sides depending upon whether the liturgical element being carried out is sacramental or sacrificial. And so with a freestanding altar the sacrificial nature of prayer can be emphasized
while also highlighting and making clear the Words of Institution as proclamation and Divine Service. This way those words can be spoken or chanted more clearly before the people.
How It Works Out In PracticeFor the Divine Service of Word and Sacrament, the pastor will typically go behind the altar and face
the people for the Preface through the rest of the service of the sacrament, especially for the Words of Institution. Where there is a freestanding altar, there will not be a crucifix on the altar itself
but behind or above the altar or else a processional crucifix is used. In
some cases the platform of the altar may need minor modification to accommodate standing space. Any candles are set on the ends of the altar on the center line of the altar. And the missal stand is placed at once side so that it can be turned to the other side at the appropriate
point in the Liturgy. In most cases the altar can be simply pulled a few
feet away from the wall so as to accommodate the pastor with some room. The altar
appointments can then be simply repositioned so it may be used from both sides easily.