Project Canterbury

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

"ESPECIALLY has the doctrine of the Atonement its roots in the Old Testament; and without an appreciative knowledge of the sacrificial system of the old dispensation it can never be understood. It was in the light of their experience of the Old Testament sacrifices that the New Testament authors wrote as they did about the death of Christ, and it was in the same light that Jesus Himself spoke as He did on the same subject at the institution of the Last Supper.

"When we try to imagine to ourselves an Israelite setting out for Jerusalem to one of the feasts, taking with him a bullock, or a sheep, or a goat—the pick of his flock—or perhaps all three, and, along with these, some choice specimens of the produce of his fields or his vineyard, and when we contrast his equipment with our own, as we set out for church any Sunday, he seems to us a strangely unintelligible figure. There is nothing, however, more certain than that the contrast between him and us is a superficial one, and that, if we could penetrate beneath the surface, we should find in his soul the same elements of worship as in our own."

O LORD, open Thou our lips, that we may bless Thy Holy Name; cleanse our hearts from all vain, evil, and wandering thoughts, that we may worthily and devoutly offer up our prayers and praises unto Thee, and so be meet to be heard in the presence of Thy Divine Majesty, through Jesus Christ our Lord.



"But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and
more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;

"Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood
He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us."
—HEBREWS ix: 11, 12.

[13] IN THE last chapter we pointed out that the altar is the oldest piece of religious furniture in the world and that its foundations go down so deep into nature—the nature of man, of beasts, of flowers, of rocks, of earth, of the cosmos—that to root them out would be to tear the vital structure of the universe—the physical, the moral, the spiritual universe—to pieces; for the altar is no mere decorative slab, no mere memorial tablet; it is the symbol, the carven form of the word "sacrifice"; and sacrifice is a central and creative principle in life.

[14] When I first came as rector to Saint Luke's parish, Evanston, a quarter of a century ago, some Protestant folk who thought I must be a kind of Jesuit in disguise looked with dismay upon the ceremonial, "ritualistic goings on," which I was introducing into the public worship of the church. One of these, a dear old lady—I forget her name—came to me one day and delicately engaged me upon the subject. She was—at least she thought she was—armed with the "sword of the spirit which is the Word of God," and with that sword she gallantly set out to smite all this Catholic "flummery"—I think that was the word—by an appeal to the Bible itself. "Altars," said she in scorn, "altars, priests, candles, vestments, acolytes, incense—you don't find those in the Bible!" Then she paused, for this revealing, demolishing fact to smite home into my misguided mind with all its weird emphasis upon those material external things. And I was very young and very smart and very audacious, and so I answered her thus: "Madam," I said, "the Bible is full of scarcely anything else! From the Garden of Eden (or just outside of it) in Genesis, clear through to the Book of Revelation at the end, it is altar, sacrifice, priest, candles, vestments, incense. The Bible [14/15] seems to me about little else." And while the answer was saucy and a bit extravagant, it was a sockdolager because, after all, it was very close to the truth. The trouble with that woman was that she didn't have a complete Bible; she had only a New Testament, and only part of that, for apparently the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation were closed books to her. What she meant by the Bible was, I suppose, the Gospels, a few selections from the prophets, and the Psalter. Yet even the Gospels swing round one central city, Jerusalem; and one central site in Jerusalem, the Temple; and one central feast in the Temple, the Passover; and one central event at the Passover, the Passion of Christ with His trial before the high priests, and His mystical death out beyond the city gates where the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement was sent. As for the Psalter—I have to smile when I think how for years that dear old lady had gone on saying the 118th Psalm, "God is the Lord which hath shewed us light: bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar," the last part of that verse being nothing but a rubric, an aside, a direction by the master of ceremonies to the acolytes at the altar: "Now at this point [15/16] in the service bind the sacrifice with cords even to the horns of the altar!"

We cannot understand our altar without knowing the backgrounds of the Jewish altar. Christianity without Judaism is simply not understandable. Our Psalter is Jewish; our prophets are Jewish; our New Testament—every book of it—is originally Jewish; the twelve apostles were Jews; the Saviour Himself was a Jew. Christianity is a graft upon Judaism: her teaching, her prayers, her hymns, her sacraments, her rites and ceremonies, all are touched and molded by this Jewish ancestry. Of course there is another side to it. Christianity is not a mere Jewish sect. It is a Catholic Church. In it neither circumcision nor uncircumcision availeth anything. In it there is neither Jew nor Greek, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free. It is a world religion, not a race religion. Jesus is the Son of Man, a universal Christ. Nevertheless, Christianity sprang from Judaism and it seeks for its goal a spiritual order, a Kingdom of God which it describes as a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, a Jerusalem which is from above, which is free, which is the mother of us all. We can therefore understand the Christian altar only by studying the altar in the Old Testament.

[17] Now you may remember that we pointed out in Chapter One that there were certain fundamental principles in sacrifice—

(a) Suffering on the part of the sinner who identifies himself with the suffering victim.
(b) Oblation, tearing a precious thing from oneself and offering it to God.

Now we shall see that these principles are clearly evident in the Old Testament, plus another principle of which we shall speak presently. No altar appears in the Garden of Eden. Why? Because no sin is there. Sin enters; Paradise, Eden, is lost; and at once sacrifice appears, with Cain bringing first fruits from his ground, and Abel, first lambs from his flock. Not last fruits or last sheep, but first ones, best ones. And Noah, after the Rood, is represented doing what? You may read it for yourself in the eighth chapter of Genesis. "And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar." Later appears from out the gloom of these ancient obscurities the noble figure of Melchizedek (Genesis xiv), King of Salem, a priest of the most high God, bringing bread and wine. And after him, Abraham offering his own son Isaac—or at least setting out to offer him—as a sacrifice to God. [17/18] The names are many which move like gigantic shadows across the pages, names identified with altars, many of which seem strangely fresh to us because of the work of modern archeology—Babel and Nineveh, Cush and Nimrod, Ur, and Shechem, and Hebron, till finally we are in Egypt; and there in Egypt, or at its gates, occurs the great and significant event—the very sign and seal of the great deliverance, the great sacrificial act which marks the passage from old to new, and inaugurates the Jewish religion as a clear and definite and unified and observable national method of worship and of life.

You may read the story of the Passover in the twelfth chapter of Exodus. Every one of us learned it as a child. The lambs were slain and their blood sprinkled upon the lintels of the doors; and the captives about to set out on the pilgrimage ate of the sacrifice, of the Passover. That Passover never, never shall be forgotten. It becomes an annual memorial. It is the germ of all that gorgeous Temple worship which evolves from it. It is kept forever by the Jew as his birthday, for such it was. And when the Lord Jesus would lift Israel up to its new level, when He would recreate it, give it a second birth, bring it triumphant through another [18/19] Red Sea, He chooses the Feast of the Passover on which to suffer and to die that His own Blood may be sprinkled upon the lives of His people; so He keeps the Passover with His friends in the upper room, and in the solemn awful Eucharistic rite appears the offered Body of Himself the Lamb, and the uplifted Chalice of His own Blood of the New Covenant which is to supersede the covenant of the old Passover rite.

And now we come to the very center of this chapter's subject, to the worship of the Temple. And again we must remind you of what we have found as central to our idea—

Suffering. You will note that in every offering of the Jew this idea is amazingly stressed and carried out. If grain is offered it must not be as it grows, but ground, flailed, broken—a broken body. And when the grapes are offered from the vineyard, they must not be as they grow upon the vine, but crushed in the wine press until they are red as blood.

And then we shall not forget these two notes:

Self oblation.
Propitiation for sin.

[20] To these we shall now see a third added:

The Sacrifice of Thanksgiving, based upon the assurance of the peace of God.

Self-oblation, sacrificial blood shedding, thanksgiving—these three notes interpret the Temple worship.

Come with me now into the Temple, into the great court, wide open to the sky. It has stone pavements and lofty walls and cloisters with magnificent pillars. This is the Court of the Gentiles comparable to the nave of a Christian church. Up at the end of the court the great altar stands with its smoking sacrifice. Up the steps beyond it the curtain hangs before the Holy Place where only the priests enter; and away up yonder, behind those gorgeous curtains of blue and purple and scarlet and white, is the Holy of Holies, with the ark; and over the ark the mercy seat; and above it, the cherubim. It is early morning. A watchman, aloft upon a pinnacle of the Temple, waits for the rising of the sun over the hills of Moab. Presently it appears. The watchman gives a signal and a company of priests blow with loud blasts upon silver trumpets. The entrance gates are thrown open. The death stroke is given to a lamb and the blood is sprinkled upon [20/21] the corners of the great altar in the Holy Place. The lamb is then placed near the altar to await a most solemn moment. Meanwhile people are hurrying from every corner of Jerusalem to take their part in the worship of the day. They fill the court with their many-colored garments. They face west. The master of ceremonies gives the signal, whereupon a procession of four priests enters from a door on the left and advances to the great altar. Following them comes the celebrant for the day. One of the four priests carries the censer filled with incense; another carries a golden bowl. All pause at the altar and fill the bowl with glowing coals. Then they turn and with solemn tread ascend the steps to the Holy Place. They pause before the entrance, and a great gong sounds which can be heard throughout the city and far beyond the city walls. They enter the veil and are lost to sight. Let us follow them. At the opposite side is the golden altar of incense close to the veil which hangs before the Holy of Holies. On its left is the seven-branched candlestick, ablaze with sacred fire; on the right is the shewbread with twelve loaves, the loaves of the Presence. One of the priests strews the burning coals upon the altar, another hands the celebrant the incense. Then the assistant [21/22] priests withdraw and take their stand without. The celebrant within scatters incense upon the coals and the smoke gradually fills the Holy Place. So lingered Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, while the people breathlessly waited below. Engaged in their prayers, they finally see the priest emerge; he stands looking out over them. As he stands there in silence—the priests below in their ranks, the people silent with awe—the body of the lamb is lifted and laid upon the altar where the remnants of former sacrifices are still burning. Then the sacrifice is offered, and the celebrant lifts up his hands and with a loud voice gives the blessing:

"The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace!"

Having blessed the people, he descends the steps and comes to the high altar. There twelve unleavened cakes are handed to him, which he throws into the flames, and a chalice of wine, which he pours out. Three long blasts of trumpets are sounded and as they cease the Levites, the singers with accompanying stringed instruments, begin to chant the psalms of the day.

Such was the daily sacrifice, in which our Lord Himself participated. For beauty, simplicity, [22/23] and deep ceremonial significance it has never been surpassed. That lamb was Israel—a whole people, a united sacrifice offered up to God. And that sacrifice, mark you, never ceased.

In the next chapter we shall speak of the great Day of Atonement when the high priest once a year entered the Holy of Holies, and of the scapegoat driven into the wilderness, and of the thank offerings, with the worshippers eating part of their sacrificial offering.

But now, with the background of this picture, open your New Testament and read all of the ninth chapter of Hebrews, and a portion of the tenth chapter as well—

"Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.

"For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary.

"And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the holiest of all;

"Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant.

"And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercy seat; of which we cannot now speak particularly.

"Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God.

[24] "But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people:

"The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing:

"Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience;

"Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.

"But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;

"Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.

"For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:

"How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

"And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.

"For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator.

[25] "For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth.

"Whereupon neither the first testament was dedicated without blood.

"For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and of goats, with water, and scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book, and all the people,

"Saying, This is the blood of the testament which God hath enjoined unto you.

"Moreover he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle, and all the vessels of the ministry.

"And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.

"It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.

"For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us:

"Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others;

"For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

"And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:

"So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; [25/26] and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.

"For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect.

"For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins.

"But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year.

"For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.

"Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me:

"In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure.

"Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me), to do thy will, O God.

"Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law;

"Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second.

"By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

"And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins:

[27] "But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;

"From henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool.

"For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.

"Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before,

"This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them;

"And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.

"Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.

"Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus,

"By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh;

"And having an high priest over the house of God;

"Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.

"Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering (for he is faithful that promised)

"And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works:

"Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

"For if we sin wilfully after that we have received [27/28] the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,

"But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries."

The Temple is gone. The Jews are dispersed. The daily sacrifice has ceased. The trumpets are silenced. The psalms are mute. The incense no longer ascends.

Is that so? No, the Temple is now no longer Jewish but Catholic. The psalms are heard not only on Mount Zion but on a thousand hilltops and in ten thousand valleys. The incense is still offered; the Lamb of God is still offered; the twelve apostles, like the twelve loaves, have found their place with the Lamb in the great sacrifice. The broken body and poured out blood are still at the center, and the daily sacrifice still calls you and me to self-oblation—to one supreme unity with the Crucified, and to a thanksgiving, a Eucharist where we eat of our sacrificial food.

And still the priest, our great High Priest, enters the Holy of Holies. And still the Christian priest enters the Holy Place and still the people wait for that great benediction:

[29] "The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace!"

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