Holy Communion today includes a reading from Acts 17:15, 17:22–18:1.
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’
There are three altars* at Sunderland Minster: the Bede Chapel altar, the Chancel high altar, and the Nave altar; appropriate for small, medium-sized, and large gatherings respectively.
I would suggest that there are also several altars in our own heart, where we encounter and respond to God. Whereas the ancient Greeks attributed different spheres of life to the concerns of different gods, Christians worship one God; but we encounter this one God in as many different aspects of our lives. So we might speak in terms of the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Healer; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Provider; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Comforter; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as the creator of the world…as Lord over history…as Lord over our lives…This is not to suggest that God is compartmentalised, but rather to recognise that our understanding of God develops as what we worship as unknown is made known to us.
And this brings us to the place in our heart of an altar with the inscription “To an unknown god.” We might need to look carefully to find it, especially if we are confident that we know God better than others do. And yet we would do well to keep such an altar. To acknowledge that God is always more than our knowledge of God, and always will be. Even when we stand before God face-to-face, we will not be able to contain him. We know God, because God has revealed himself to us, and principally in the person of Jesus; but he invites us to step out into the unknown, to walk by faith not sight. To present our sacrifice at the altar to an unknown God, not so as not to offend through ignorance, but in order to participate in mystery.
*I know that some people take exception to the use of the term ‘altar,’ as it can suggest that Jesus’ death was somehow insufficient and needs replenishing. Indeed, refuting such a view (Articles of Religion XXXI), the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship only ever use the term ‘the Lord’s Table,’ or ‘table’ for short. Nonetheless, the order for Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer includes the prayer: ‘O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving…And here we offer and present unto thee, O lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee…And although we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service…’ Therefore, what is primarily the Lord’s table to which we, unworthy though we are, are invited, is simultaneously our altar where we offer our sacrifice, not to appease God’s wrath but in response to God’s love.