There are two key moments that the priest kisses the altar – during the entrance procession and at the conclusion of the Mass. In our day to day activities, we know what a kiss stands for. It is a sign of love and affection. It is a sign of welcome and acceptance. Under normal circumstances, no one kisses his or her enemy.
The unique moment in Scriptures whereby a kiss led to the death of another person was the kiss of betrayal of Judas. Matthew 26:48 says, “The traitor, Judas, had given them a prearranged signal: ‘You will know which one to arrest when I greet him with a kiss.’” That was unfortunate – to profane a symbol of love into a symbol of destruction.
Right from the onset, let us remind ourselves that the altar in our churches represents Christ, the “cornerstone” of the Church. Ephesians 2:20 says, “Together, we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Christ Jesus himself.”
Know this, at every Eucharistic celebration, Christ is the Priest, the Altar, and the Victim of sacrifice. This is why, apart from bowing to the crucifix, we also bow to the altar of sacrifice.
Kissing the altar, therefore, is a sign of honour and reverence to Christ. That is the number one reason – honour and reverence to Christ.
Another reason is rooted in ancient Christian tradition. That is, to reverence the relics of the saint or martyr placed within the altar itself. O yes, every altar has a relic of a saint or martyr buried in it. What is a relic? A relic is simply a part of a deceased holy person’s body or belongings kept as an object of reverence. It can be a body part – a bone, the heart – or a piece of cloth, etc.
In the early centuries of the church, when Christianity underwent a lot of persecutions, the early Christians had their Mass celebrate underground, in the catacombs. The catacombs were underground cemeteries and many of the Christian martyrs were buried there. During the celebration of the Mass, a stone slab was placed over the tomb of the martyrs as a sign of reverence to their heroic Christian lives.
In the year 313, Christians had their freedom to worship openly through the Edict of Milan. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the “Edict of Milan, (is a) proclamation that permanently established religious toleration for Christianity within the Roman Empire. It was the outcome of a political agreement concluded in Mediolanum (modern Milan) between the Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius in February 313. The proclamation, made for the East by Licinius in June 313, granted all persons freedom to worship whatever deity they pleased, assured Christians of legal rights (including the right to organize churches), and directed the prompt return to Christians of confiscated property.”
With the legalisation of Christianity through the Edict of Milan in 313, the celebration of Masses moved from the underground catacombs into the open into public buildings or churches. This did not stop the tradition of honouring the saints and martyrs during liturgical celebrations. In fact, many churches were built over the tombs of saints and martyrs. A classical example is the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. Those churches that could not build their structure over the tomb of a martyr had a stone slab with a first-class relic within it placed on top of the altar itself.
It is said that the Second Council of Nicaea, held in 787, decreed that churches were to have altars with relics of saints placed within them.
Indeed, it is now an ecclesial law to have the relics of a saint placed in cavity built within every altar. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #302, states,
“The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. Care should be taken, however, to ensure the authenticity of such relics.”
Usually the record of the saint whose relics are buried in the cavity of your parish altar is kept in your parish archives.
Before I conclude, I want to set you thinking a little more. About the burying or placing of relics of saints or martyrs in our altars. Revelation 6:9 paints a picture. It says,
“When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony.”
Yes, I just read from the Bible and you can crosscheck it too. “I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony.” This tradition goes on in the Catholic Church.
I wish you joy and peace!