Six Altars: Studies in Sacrifice
By George Craig Stewart
Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing, 1930.
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
"AWAY BEYOND the dawn of history, 3,000 or 4,000 years ago, one thinks of the Wiltshire uplands in the twilight of a mid-summer day's morning. The torches pale in the growing light. One has a dim apprehension of a procession through the avenue of stone, of priests, perhaps fantastically dressed with skins and horns and horrible painted masks—not the robed and bearded dignitaries our artists represent the Druids to have been—of chiefs in skins adorned with necklaces of teeth and bearing spears and axes, their great heads of hair held up with pins of bone, of women in skins, of flaxen robes, of a great peering crowd of shock-headed men and naked children. They have assembled from many distant places; the ground between the avenues and Silbury Hill is dotted with their encampments. A certain festive cheerfulness prevails. And amidst the throng march the appointed human victims, submissive, helpless, staring toward the distant smoking altar at which they are to die—that the harvest may be good and the tribe increase. . . To that had life progressed 3,000 or 4,000 years ago from its starting place in the slime of the tidal beaches."—H. G. WELLS.
O THOU who art the everlasting essence of things, beyond space and time, and yet within them; Thou who transcendest yet pervadest all things; manifest Thyself unto us, feeling after Thee, and seeking Thee in the shades of ignorance. Stretch forth Thy hand to help us, who cannot without Thee come to Thee; and reveal Thyself unto us who seek nothing beside Thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
THE ALTAR IN NATURE
"The whole creation groaneth and travaileth."
—ROMANS VIII: 22.
THE altar is the oldest piece of church furniture in the world. Its foundations are knit into the structure of the universe; its roots are coiled into the depths of human nature itself. In London the other day, while excavating under one of the ancient city churches, archeologists found far below the crypt a Roman altar to Jove. Dig further beneath the ruins of Roman culture and you will find a Greek altar to Zeus; and deeper than that a Cretan altar to Minos; and beneath that an Egyptian altar; keep on digging, and [1/2] beneath altars Babylonian, Sumerian, Druidic, you will finally come to rude stones in old damp forests, cairns and dolmens, evidences Neolithic and Paleolithic of animal sacrifice and human sacrifice, altars to an unknown, but suspected, God.
Now a church altar by itself is nothing but a piece of stone. And to some people a stone is just a stone and nothing more. But by the thoughtful person—who notes the centrality of its religious use, its instant suggestion of deepest religious significance—the word "altar" is broken open to find the creative idea which lies behind it. Things like altars do not happen. To survive at the heart of religion, an altar must be a congealed form of some tremendously vital experience. Someone has called architecture frozen poetry. Church architecture is remembered religious experience. An altar must be an outward and visible sign of some ineradicable experience of the race which forces its way up through generation after generation, through ignorance and superstition and half science and developing knowledge, and which alone can account for the position and power of the symbol which is its fit expression.
It must be boldly stated, then, that the idea for which the altar stands is, above all else, [2/3] Sacrifice. And very evidently that is one reason why Protestantism is afraid of it. Go into a Protestant church. Is the center of its interest an altar? It is not. The center is a pulpit. But down in front of the pulpit and beneath it you will usually find the shrunken, vestigial remains of the altar, in the form of a communion table. The reason for the shrunken form is historically clear. Those Christian bodies which were born of the fierce theological controversies of the sixteenth century were convinced that the sacrificial idea of the Eucharist with its priest and its Host, its broken body and poured-out blood, was a peril to spiritual reality. They revolted against the "sacrifices of Masses." They protested against a gross and carnal idea of human sacrifice. The reformers, therefore, who worked such havoc in the Anglican Church laid hands upon many an altar, jerked it away from the east end of the church, stripped it of its ornaments, pulled and hauled away at it till they had it down into the choir, and then turned it around, so that the priest should no longer stand at the altar with his back to the people like a sacrificing priest, but rather at the end of what had become a table, as an officiating minister. It was not the altar as a symbol of worship that bothered them, or that bothers their [3/4] successors today, but the altar as embodying the idea of an objectively offered sacrifice to God. That seemed to the Protestant, and still seems to him, a relic of those bad old days of superstition when men still believed in bloody and even human sacrifices.
Now we propose to dig to the very roots of the idea, to see, if it be possible, whether they are right or wrong.
When we speak of the altar in nature, we do not mean to wax sentimental or romantic by building before you an altar to Pan at which all of us can worship. Poets may do that for you. Bryant taught us as children that the
"Groves were God's
First temples, ere man learned
To hew the shaft and lay the architrave,
And spread the roof above them."
We know those winding aisles, those dim vaults that he describes, and share with him great reverential thoughts. We have read our Emerson and we agree that
"In the mud and scum of things
There always, always, something sings."
And we have shared with Francis Thompson the radiant vision of Day, a dedicated priest, lifting the Host upon the altar of the eastern [4/5] sky, and "sprinkling benediction through the dawn." With Tagore we have heard in the stillness, in
"Every blade of grass, in every speck of dust,
In every part of our own bodies, in the plants,
the sun, the stars, the joyous dance of atoms,
Through endless time, the myriad moving waves of
rhythm surrounding the throne of God";
And with Tennyson, amidst the awful mysteries of nature, we have felt our feet tread the
"Great world's altar stairs
That slope through darkness up to God."
But all this Emersonian and Tennysonian mood does not bring us to grips with the deep and awful mystery that we are really facing. The altar stands for more than worship, for something more definite, more poignant, more tragic, more mysterious, and more vital than all that.
The altar stands for sacrifice, and sacrifice means—first of all—suffering. A suffering victim. And a suffering worshipper, too, who painfully tears from himself something of value, identifies himself and his oblation with the suffering victim, and offers both to the gods, or to God, in the hope that something of peace and power and higher good may thus be [5/6] achieved. This idea is essential to the general conception of sacrifice. There are other ideas that cluster round this central one, but this at least is central. Suffering is there at the core. Suffering on the part of the worshipper and of the victim. Yes, and a mystical identification of the two, so that the gods find the offerer in his offering, and accepting one, accept the other.
And now go a little deeper. As far back as you can find human altars you will find that this suffering worshipper is tortured with the idea of something wrong with himself. All is not well. He is torn with a sense of guilt. You may explain as you will this feeling, but it is there, it is there in all its agony and it is somehow strangely a creative force in the evolution of the race. We call it a sense of sin. And something, the sinner feels, must be done about it. The sinner must do something; facio (I do) is half the word of sacrifice; he must take something that is part of himself and tear it out—a lamb of the flock, perhaps, or a bull from the herd, or a flower from the garden, or even his own child—something that is closest to his heart—and offer it as a propitiation, or else he must fling himself upon the altar and die.
Go deeper still, so deep that you have left man behind, far up the slope. You still have [6/7] nature, but no longer human nature as such. You have about you your little brothers, the beasts. No sin here. As Walt Whitman says, "The animals do not lie awake and sweat for their sins." No, they do not—for they are animals. What they do is done unerringly, according to their instincts. But have we left behind the altar? We have not. Here is the same old mystery which lies even deeper than sin, the mystery of suffering. Teeth and talons whetted for slaughter; hook and suckers moulded for torment; terror, hunger, oozing blood, quivering limbs. As Huxley said, "Were our ears sharp enough we should hear in nature thousands of times a minute, sighs and groans of pain like those heard by Dante at the gate of hell."
Go even deeper yet; leave behind your sentient life and come to the heart of the cosmos—what is it? It is not calm, but tempest, flaming stars, worlds burning up, earthquakes, storms, cataclysms, rocks ripped open, flowers crushed by hail, forests uprooted, fields laid desolate, continents rising and falling, hills being removed and mountains carried into the midst of the sea—a great cosmic Calvary where veils of temples are being rent, and suns and moons are turned to blood, darkness pierced by lightnings, [7/8] graves opening and shutting, a terrific and awful apocalyptic picture. The Cross, it seems, goes clear to the roots of nature. The agony of convulsion goes clear to the bottom.
No wonder men cry out, "There is no God or He would not permit such suffering all the way along, such pain and anguish. Your altar idea is a denial of God's existence. Or at least of His omnipotence, for perhaps He cannot help Himself."
Our answer is, you are right unless—unless there is in the nature of God Himself this altar principle of sacrifice. Show us a clue. Show us God in the midst of this. Show us some spiritual meaning and value in all this storm and stress. Show us that God is moving in all this vast cosmic tragedy. Show us that somehow Love is moving in this, or else—
"Talk not to me of Thy salvation.
I will but curse at Thee—I, for one,
Will spit on Thy bliss, and snatch at Thy damnation,
Scorn and abhor the shining of the sun."
Here is our answer, and it is the only answer: The Cross of God who suffers in love all the way along to Calvary. We take the vision of that Cross back with us to the heart of nature and by its light we see that vicarious suffering is the secret of the altar; in the light of [8/9] that Cross we tread the altar steps that lead to God.
The sun burns itself up and ripens our harvests.
The mountains strip themselves to pour their rich mineral foods into the valleys.
The corals die that an island of their bones may lift its fronds above the waves.
The mineral gives itself up to a higher order of life, a plant.
The plant is torn from the roots to give itself to the higher life of the beast.
Come up a little higher. Scott at the South Pole tells us how mother seals invite chase and death to protect their young.
Hunters know how pheasants entice the hunter away from the nest.
Come up still higher. Homer gives his eyes to produce the Iliad.
Milton loses his sight to regain for us a Paradise.
David would gladly die for Absalom.
Mothers and fathers with joy lay down their lives for their children.
 The law is evident: No sacrifice, no leadership; no suffering, no progress; no pain, no character; no broken body, no salvation; no blood poured out, no redemption.
When they built the walls of Jericho, the builders slew a man and laid the foundation in his blood. It was a common custom throughout the world. Horrible, isn't it? But it enshrines the sacrificial truth. No city can stand except it be founded in human sacrifice.
Now come up to the highest. If at the heart of the nature of things we find suffering, sacrificial suffering for a higher end; if we find it rising in clarity and beauty from mineral to vegetable, to animal, to man, we may expect to find this sacrificial principle in God Himself. And then we turn to Jesus, in whom God and man meet. If He fails here, then He is not true to nature, either human or divine. But He does not fail. The Cross is central in His life, and His Cross is central in the Church which is His Body.
And then we look again at the altar. And we ask, "What is there?" The answer comes, "His Body!" Tell us, has it suffered? And the answer comes, "Broken!" And that cup? "It is His Blood." Tell us of that, "Poured out for love of man!" [10/11] We begin to understand. And we do what nature, the nature of man, tells us to do: we identify our suffering with His suffering, our life with His life, our death with His death.
"Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayers so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the Passion of Thy Son our Lord."