On Altar-Tables, Images, and Epicletic Prayer
Q. What should we call the piece of furniture we use for the Lord’s Supper? An altar? A table? I’ve even heard it called an altar-table? Why that?
A. An altar is furniture for a sacrifice. Altars in the Old Testament temple and tabernacle were the place for the sacrifice of animals. In the medieval church, the Lord’s Supper or mass was celebrated at an altar. Correspondingly, the Lord’s Supper was understood to be the enactment or re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice.
Sixteenth-century Reformers in the tradition of Zwingli and Calvin protested both this theology of the mass and the name of the furniture. They stressed that the Lord’s Supper was primarily a meal, not a sacrifice, and thus should be celebrated at a table. The Lord’s Supper, they said, is an occasion at which God does something for us, not one at which we do something for God. It is not too strong to say that the heart of the Calvinist Reformation lies in the intentional move from altar to table.
Of course, worship is still a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15). Some Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists freely use the term altar for Lord’s Supper furniture, taking care to stress that the Lord’s Supper doesn’t replace or add to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ. And some congregations bring the offering forward to a place called an altar, which may or may not be the very same place as the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. Likewise, the old spiritual “leave your all on the altar” evokes the same imagery.
Recent Lutheran, Episcopal, and Catholic architects and liturgists have used the dual term altar-table. This neologism is meant to convey the multiple meanings of the Lord’s Supper. In the Lord’s Supper, they say, we both remember the sacrifice and celebrate a meal. With proper limits around the concept of sacrifice, this can be an evocative and faithful way of thinking.
The problem is that the subtleties of the sacrificial terminology are easily lost. And pastorally, we continue to fight the persistent tendency to think of the Lord’s Supper as something whose power is dependent on our own strength, or on how hard we think about Jesus. Given this context, there is much wisdom in retaining the use of the term table. At the table, we receive the gift of spiritual nourishment. Our eating and drinking is participation in Christ’s own body, a sure and concrete sign of his gracious love for us.
Q. Given the second commandment, our church never displays paintings, images or symbols, but we see symbols all the time on our PowerPoint displays. What about that second commandment? Isn’t this practice inconsistent?
A. It does seem inconsistent. Symbols are symbols, whether permanently displayed or projected.
But this might be a good time to rethink what is meant by the second commandment. The point of the commandment was to keep worshipers from imagining God in their terms and from superstitiously thinking that by means of some physical object they could manipulate God’s favor. This is rock-solid truth for us today.
But the second commandment does not mean that we should quit communicating visually in worship. In the Old Testament, the second commandment fit together perfectly with a tabernacle and temple filled with visual symbols. All buildings convey visual meaning—even the architecturally chaste Puritan meeting houses, with their prominent pulpits, speak loudly about the significance of preaching.
So by all means, refuse to depict God in worship. Get rid of anything—visual, physical (and musical)—that directs people’s attention away from the living God. But don’t turn off the God-given gift of visual communication.
Q. Every so often, I hear worship types talk about “the epiclesis.” What is that? Is it important?
A. An epiclesis (from the Greek, epi-cleo, to call upon) is a prayer calling upon the Holy Spirit to work through a given worship action, such as a prayer for illumination prior to a Scripture reading or sermon, or a prayer of consecration at baptism or Lord’s Supper.
Epicletic prayer acknowledges that God is the primary agent that makes worship effective and nourishing. Preaching is ultimately effective because the Holy Spirit uses it to comfort, challenge, or convict us. The Lord’s Supper is not made powerful by how hard we think about Jesus, but by the how the Spirit works through it to nourish our faith. Epicletic prayer places us in a posture of humility, longing, and expectation, and frees us from the burden of thinking that the power of worship is all up to us.
We hope you find Q&A stimulating. We also hope that you’ll join in the dialogue. Send your questions about worship to Reformed Worship Q&A by mail (2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE Grand Rapids, MI 49560), fax (616-224-0803), or e-mail (email@example.com). You can also e-mail John directly (firstname.lastname@example.org).