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
"THE DEATH of Christ, like many another martyrdom, is a terrible and moving thing. That does not make it a sacrifice. To see it in its sacrificial aspect it is not enough that we should be moved to tears or horror, nor that we should take it simply as a symbol of the cruelty of men or the tragic element in human life. To see it as a sacrifice we must steadily contemplate it in the aspect of a gift which costs the offerer much, and the aspect of a gift which satisfies a need."
—K. E. KIRK.
"THE LIFE of Jesus Christ is for Christians an active and personal entrance of God into the very inmost secrets of human agony—in Gethsemane, in the judgment hall of Pilate, on Calvary. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. And if Jesus be, in truth, what St. Paul called Him, 'the portrait of the invisible God,' then the Cross is not only an earthly event, but also the revelation of a continuing experience in God's life.
—W. COSBY BELL.
WE beseech Thee, O Lord, pour Thy grace into our hearts; that, as we have known the incarnation of Thy Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, so by His cross and passion we may be brought unto the glory of His resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
THE ALTAR ON CALVARY
"Christ being come an high priest . . . entered in once into the Holy Place."
—HEBREWS ix: 11, 12.
THOSE five letters A L T A R carry the picture of ancient mounds, hills, blocks of stone, reared high above the plain like mute signals to the sky as if the worshippers were desperately striving to attract the attention of the gods. The word altar itself means high (altus). In Chapter One we pointed out that the altar is deep—so deep that its foundations are the very foundations of the physical and moral and spiritual universe. By metonymy "altar" is "sacrifice," and the sacrifice is the deepest, the most poignant, the most vital, and most creative factor in life.
In Chapter Two we sought to give the Old Testament background for the Christian altar, because, after all, the Founder of Christianity [31/32] was a Jew, the apostles were Jews, our Christian religion is rooted in Judaism, and one cannot understand Volume II of our sacred books (the New Testament) unless he has read Volume I (the Old Testament). One cannot understand Act II of the Christian drama unless one has some understanding of what went on in Act I.
In these two previous chapters we discovered three principles in sacrifice:
1. The offering of the victim, with which the sin of the worshipper is identified.
2. The suffering of the victim, with which the sinful and suffering offerer is identified.
3. The eating of the sacrifice by the offerer in thanksgiving and in communion with God.
Now we go forward and upward. You remember how the priest and his acolytes in the Jewish Temple at their morning sacrifice entered the Holy Place and how the priest came again with a blessing to the people while the lamb burned on the altar and the Levites chanted the psalms. But we have now to consider an even more awful and impressive spectacle—the great sin offering upon the Day of Atonement. It took place once a year, and the day of its observance was the one great obligatory fast of the Jewish kalendar. The minister on that day [32/33] was the high priest himself, who officiated alone. Over his girded alb he wore a rochet such as Christian bishops wear, only this one was sleeveless and blue in color with the skirts ornamented with bells and pomegranates. Over this he wore the ephod (something like a chasuble) with two bands richly embroidered, which met in front at the breastplate of cloth of gold set with twelve precious stones. And upon the head was the mitre with a plate of gold across the forehead inscribed "Holiness unto the Lord."
On the Day of Atonement the high priest alone was the celebrant. The usual ceremonial described in the last chapter took place. But as the psalter died away a very solemn moment approached. The high priest put off his splendid vestments (we think of our dear Redeemer and His seamless robe put off, as He prepared to render up His life for men). He must make atonement first for himself and then for the people. The victims were twofold—a bullock for himself; two goats for the people.
Upon the bullock, placed at the foot of the steps leading up to the sanctuary, the high priest lays his hands and confesses his sins and those of his house.
The goats are brought to a spot at the right [33/34] hand of the altar and set in full view of the congregation. One he selects for Jehovah, the Lord, who dwelleth in the sanctuary; the other he chooses for the prince of darkness whose name in the New Testament is Satan or Apollyon, and whose abode is in the wilderness. These two goats are exactly alike, for virtually they are one, representing two aspects of one great transaction. And the one for the wilderness is turned toward the people, with a scarlet fillet tied to its horns. (We think of our Lord crowned with thorns when Pilate brought Him before the multitude.)
There is a tradition recorded in Jewish homes that the scarlet fillet in that hour turned white ("Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow"); but, the legend goes on, for forty years before the destruction of the Temple (A. D. 70) this miracle did not take place. It was in the spring of A. D. 29 or 30 that the priests and scribes cried out in Pilate's hall, "His blood be on us and on our children!"
In awful silence the service proceeds. Censer in hand, the high priest ascends through the curtains into the Holy Place and finally passes into the Holy of Holies. There he sets down the censer upon the pavement till the [34/35] whole place fills with smoke. The great congregation shrinks backward and waits. Its representative has entered into the presence of God, there to make atonement and intercession. He reappears. The bullock is slain and the blood is caught in a golden bowl. The goat dedicated to Jehovah is slain and its blood gathered up. With this blood the high priest enters again two separate times into the Holy of Holies and sprinkles the blood on the mercy seat above the ark. He then returns, sprinkling the blood on the altar of incense in the Holy Place. Then he comes down and sprinkles the altar; and the bodies of the sacrificial lambs, instead of being offered on the altar, are burned without the gates. (O my Lord, Thou wentest out beyond the gates to Calvary!) All this time the goat with the scarlet fillet is standing there gazing at the people whose sins it is to bear. The high priest now approaches it and lays his hands upon it and confesses the sins of his people. And it is then led forth into the wilderness.
This is a hasty description of the ceremonial on the great Day of Atonement. And now turn to Jesus. Those disciples of His were Jews. For three years they were with Him, saw His spotless life, knew His terrible meekness, beheld at close hand the quiet gentleness [35/36] of His strength, saw Him suffer with people in their sickness and sin, knew the agony of that preparation in the Garden, shared in that mystical rite of the upper room on that Passover night when He spoke the words, "This is my Body broken for you. This is my Blood of the new covenant"—saw Him seized by the soldiers, insulted by the priests, and finally in an agony of horror watched from afar while He was led without the gates, taken to a high hill like an altar, stripped of His robes, and crucified up there. And the darkness came on and filled the earth, and the heavens rumbled with the storm, and the veil of the Temple was rent, and His blood came trickling down into the ground.
And then, and then, they saw Him again. He came to them swiftly with wounds in hands and feet and lifted up the bread and lifted up the blessed chalice in Emmaus and in the upper room.
And gradually there broke upon them the meaning of it all. He was the divine fulfilment of all this Temple worship. He was the supreme divine Victim. He was the Lamb of God. His blood cleanseth from all sin. His atonement satisfies. "There remains no more sacrifice for sin."
 "If the blood of bulls and 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?"
Listen to St. Peter, good Jew that he was, but now under a new covenant: "Ye know ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, but with the precious blood of Christ as of a Lamb without blemish and without spot."
Listen to St. John in his vision of the heavenlies: "I saw," he says, "I saw into the heart of heavenly things, into the Holy of Holies where they rest not day and night singing Holy, Holy, Holy! And lo, in the midst of the throne of God—a Lamb as it had been slain—yes, slain from the foundation of the world. And I heard the voice of angels and elders, ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing; and every creature which is in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that are in them heard I saying, Blessing and honor [37/38] and glory and power be unto Him that sitteth on the throne and unto the Lamb for ever and ever!'"
Nor have we exhausted even the bare outline of the theme. The disciples saw in Jesus the Lamb, the one all-sufficient sacrifice for sin: but they saw in Him strangely, mystically, the great High Priest as well. He not only offered Himself, but He, stripped of His glory, emptying Himself, took His own sacrifice and crying from the Cross, "It is finished," pulled aside the veil and entered alone into the Holy of Holies, into the immediate presence of God, there to make intercession for us. Not into "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, . . . but once hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself."
Caiaphas, Annas—hard-hearted men were they, aloof, proud, merciless in judgment. But we have a priest, a High Priest, said these early Christians—"able to save to the uttermost those who come unto God by him. We have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without [38/39] sin. Therefore let us come boldly unto the Throne of Grace that we may find grace to help in time of need." Read the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is a great oratorio written upon this theme. No wonder that hymnology has taken it up so that we sing on Ascension Day:
"Hark! the songs of peaceful Zion
Thunder like a mighty flood.
Jesus out of every nation
Hath redeemed us by His blood.
"Thou within the veil hast entered,
Robed in flesh, our great High Priest.
Thou on earth both priest and victim
In the Eucharistic Feast."
The Eucharistic Feast—that is another chapter in the great story. But now as we look anew at the altar we see Calvary and the crucified Lamb of God. And we see the heavens open and we see Jesus the Lamb of God and our great High Priest, and to His great sacrifice we unite our own sacrificial selves in surrender, and our praises and thanksgivings, and find ourselves saying, "O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us," and find ourselves singing with a new and deeper meaning,
"O Lamb of God, still keep me
Near to Thy wounded side!"