The Catholic Church is full of splendor and beauty in many of its marvelous altars throughout the world. You might have your own favorites, which could include St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria or even St. Francis de Sales Oratory in St. Louis, Missouri. No matter which one you prefer or consider your favorite, the concept and idea of altars should not be ignored in daily life. The Church builds amazing and breathtaking altars in many of the parishes and cathedrals around the world, but we, too should symbolically have our own “altars” we have built in our life.
“From Egypt Abram went up to the Negeb with his wife and all that belonged to him, and Lot accompanied him. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, silver and gold. From the Negeb he traveled by stages toward Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had formerly stood. The site where he had first built the altar: and there he invoked the Lord by name.” (Genesis 13:1-4…emphasis mine)
“Abram moved his tents and went on to settle near the terebinth of Mamre, which is at Hebron. There he built an altar to the Lord.” (Genesis 13:18…emphasis mine)
Why did Abram (later called Abraham) seem to build an altar everywhere he went? Altars had a specific purpose to ancient Israel (just as they have a purpose today). The altar was a raised structure used for sacrifices. The purpose of a sacrifice was the remission of sins and reconciliation with God. The offering of a sacrifice on the altar was not only an act of worship but a cry of the heart of the one offering the sacrifice. It was a cry to be closer to God, to worship God and receive forgiveness for sins. It was an act of surrendering something (i.e. lamb, dove, etc.) in order to receive something greater (i.e. forgiveness of sins).
Ancient altars were very important to the Israelites. Temple worship centered on the offering of sacrifices on the altar and the spilling of blood for the atonement of sins. It was a place of giving up something in order to gain something greater.
When looking back at Abram’s altars, it was not only a place of offering sacrifices to God but also a place to commemorate a divine occurrence with God at that location and at a specific moment. It was a place of remembrance of God’s covenants and promises. It was a place of communion with the Lord.
On the altar the victim that is being sacrificed symbolically is laden with sin and therefore encounters the purifying and sanctifying power of God. The result is reconciliation with the Lord and remission of sins.
We all should be able to look back on our life and see moments in time where we have made a choice. It’s that moment in your life where you chose to stand up against homosexuality rather than support it, confess an adulterous affair to your spouse and seek forgiveness rather than continuing in a sinful relationship, or devoting an hour of your time to prayer instead of watching TV. It’s the day you chose to do the “right thing” at work rather than the “easy thing”. It’s that day when you chose God over sin. It’s that hour you chose to forgive someone who has hurt you rather than continue holding tightly to bitterness and anger. Those are the altars in your life.
Those are the times you have chosen to lay down something in exchange for following God. It’s those times where you chose God over yourself. That is your altar building moment. It is during those times where you can return, just as Abram returned to the altar he had built between Bethel and Ai, and call upon the Lord when you struggle. It’s those altars in your life where you can look back on and remember the faithfulness of the Lord. It’s those times that will lead you to a deeper faith as opposed to a shallow, weak faith.
We must also remember, just as the Israelites did many times, we may find ourselves building an altar or offering a sacrifice to a false god. When we choose sin, pleasure, and convenience over obedience to the Lord then we begin building altars in our life to false gods of prosperity, ourselves, family, and careers. It is the altars to the Lord Jesus that we should seek to build.
We should all have those altars in our life. We should all have moments where we gave up sin for God. If you do not have those altars in your life perhaps it is time to build one. Perhaps it’s time to repent from those sins you have carried for so long and seek God. Maybe, just maybe, it’s confession time. It’s time to surrender. It’s time to obey. It’s time to act.