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
"WE WILL strive to make our home a true democracy, with mutual respect for personality. We will not abdicate responsibility for the moral welfare of our children, nor turn this function over to school or church. We will try to endow them with the great moral safeguards of life: self-control, self-respect, a sense of honor, and the spirit of chivalry. By faithful instruction and the homely projects of the household, we will practise them in all the homespun virtues.
"We know this task is hopeless without religion. We therefore face the necessity of a vital personal religion, frankly acknowledged and honestly lived with our children. We pledge ourselves to find afresh the high inspirations of the Bible in the light of modern learning. We agree to revive the simple prayer custom of Jesus, at least to bless our family meals with the grace of thanksgiving. We pledge cooperation with the Church and its allies which are striving to raise up a generation of youth who can meet victoriously the subtle temptations of present-day living.
—PROF. GEORGE WALTER FISKE.
ALMIGHTY GOD, our heavenly Father, who settest the solitary in families; We commend to Thy continual care the homes in which Thy people dwell. . . . Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness. Knit together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh; turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we be evermore kindly affectioned with brotherly love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE ALTAR IN THE HOME
"The Master saith . . . I will keep the Passover at thy house."
—ST. MATTHEW xxvi: 18.
"Today I must abide at thy house."
—ST. LUKE xix: 5.
I WONDER if we have made a logical blunder. Should not the Altar in the Home have come before the Altar in the Church? Historically, yes, for the family comes before the tribe. And every altar was in a house, I suppose, before a group of householders gathered together and built that larger family altar in the Temple. Certainly the Christian altar began in a house —a borrowed house, let it be added. "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head"! He had to borrow a boat for the lake, and the foal of an ass on which to ride into [57/58] Jerusalem; He had to borrow a grave in which to lie; and He had to borrow a house in which to keep the Passover. Blessed home—like the home of Obed Edom, in which the ark rested—was this house (perhaps that of John Mark's parents), for in that house in the upper room He kept the Passover with His friends and broke the bread and blessed the cup ere He went out to die upon the Cross. Yes, and we do not forget—we cannot forget—that the day of His resurrection found Him at sunset come to the little home of Clopas. "Come in and abide with us," they said, "for it draws toward eventide." And so He entered and made of their humble table His altar and broke the bread, and "their eyes were opened, and they knew Him in the breaking of bread, and He vanished out of their sight."
The Altar in the Home! Why, come to think of it, He did institute His altar in a home, and ever since, the atmosphere of the family has clung to that altar; when we approach it we have not the spirit of fear, but the family spirit, the spirit of sons, whereby we cry, "Abba, Father!" We are all brothers and sisters, and call it God's Board, the Table of the Lord; we have communion one with another, eating one common bread, drinking one common cup, and [58/59] realizing that we are members of one family, one "blest communion, fellowship divine."
I remember once reading the story of an old Scotch woman, a very poor woman, who wanted to help the priest build a kirk yonder upon the moor. Building materials were scarce; but finally the poor little building was up. All was ready, except one thing: they had no slab for the altar. Then it was she had an idea. Home she went and with a few rude tools dug up the hearthstone, which had been there for generations, and lugged it to a wheelbarrow and brought it to the kirk for an altar stone. And somehow her hearth was always holier because of that. The glow from that altar seemed to shine back to her "wee biggin." The home had contributed the altar and the altar somehow reconsecrated her home.
Well, then, the table of the Christian home with its candles and its bread and its wine is offered to Jesus, who takes and consecrates it to His own high and mystical and sacramental use. Don't you feel somehow that the glory of it, the wonder of it, the holiness of it is reflected upon every meal within the Christian's home?
We see a Christian family returned from Mass. They are gathered again around a [59/60] board. Candles are lighted. And the bread is there. A little while ago these same folk were met around God's Board for the food of the soul, and now they are met for the food of the body. Bodies and souls go together. They are sacramentally united. The family all stand reverently and bow their heads. Jesus is here too. And the sign of the cross is made, and the father, acting as priest, lifts up his voice, "Bless, O Lord, this food of which we are about to partake and give us thankful hearts" (literally Eucharistic hearts). Somehow it sounds strangely like an echo from that great altar of the Church—"Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and feed on Him in thy heart . . . with thanksgiving!" Here, without a doubt, is the last remnant of the ancient Christian altar in the home.
Last remnant? Yes, the very last—a most precious survival of what was once universal and is, alas! swiftly disappearing. Let us make a swift historical survey of this institution of the altar in the home. Enter a Greek home: pass through the vestibule into the court of the house. What is there at the center? The altar to Zeus. And all about the court are the statues of the other gods. No Greek home was even conceivable without its altar. There the [60/61] baptisms took place, and the betrothals, and the marriages, and the vows and the prayers of the family, and the libations to the gods.
Enter a Roman house. Its principal room is the atrium where the altar is built to Lares and Penates, the gods who defended the house, and the gods who defended its contents. All the home life of these ancients was presided over by divinities. The door was consecrated to Janus, and the hearth to Vesta; Ceres presided over the granary; Flora, in the garden; and Pomona, in the orchard. At the back of every Roman home was the little chapel where the actual sacrifices were offered, a holy shrine, without which no home was complete.
And the Jewish house, though it had no statues, though it feared idolatry, had its altar in the home. Before every meal the members of the household washed and prayed; after it they gave thanks. On Sabbath even, as the head of the house returned from the synagogue, he found the lamp burning brightly, and the table richly spread. Every child was blessed by him with the blessing of Israel, and next evening when the Sabbath light faded out, he conducted a solemn service of dedication for the work of the coming week.
And so the Christians started out. [61/62] The Eucharist itself was in the beginning celebrated from house to house. "They broke the bread from house to house with gladness." And even after churches began to be built, house after house had its aumbry with the Blessed Sacrament in it, so that frequent communion could be made. And even today, wherever the Catholic religion is practised, you will discover in the home the shrine, with its light burning before it, or at least a crucifix hanging upon a wall with a prie-dieu at its feet.
Yes, and we may go a step further. When Protestantism came into Germany and Switzerland and France and England and Scotland, and later into America, and swept away the altar from many a church and the shrine from many a home, the old idea was preserved. The home still reëchoed the church. Whatever kind of altar was there in the church, that kind of altar reappeared in the home. If in the church the Bible of a sudden took the place of the mystic sacrifice, why then the Bible reappeared in the home as the center of the family altar. I know, because I was reared in that kind of Protestant home. After breakfast, out came the Bible; one after another we took our turn reading it, and then we all knelt down and one of our elders led in prayer. And in the evening out [62/63] came the Bible again; once more a chapter was read, and once more we all knelt down, with prayers that He might be our light in the darkness, and guard us sleeping or waking. Robert Burns has immortalized such a scene—
"The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face,
They round the ingle form a circle wide;
The sire turns o'er with patriarchal grace
The big ha'-Bible, ance his father's pride;
His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin and bare;
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
He wales a portion with judicious care;
* * * *
From scenes like these old Scotia's grandeur springs,
That makes her loved at home, revered abroad."
Where is that kind of home today? Where is the altar in the home? Nay, where is the home? Once the altar in the home is gone, the home begins to go.
The altar to which everything is sacrificed today is what? The radio! I have nothing against the radio. It is a great and on the whole a beneficial gift. But I submit it should not be the center of the family life, the grace before [63/64] meals, the substitute, for wholesome conversation, and the very Lares and Penates of the home.
Recently a little girl defined the home thus: "Home is where we stay while the automobile is being fixed."
Another defined it as: "The place where you go to change your clothes to go somewhere else."
Perhaps you have heard the story of the young husband and wife to whom a real estate agent was trying to sell a house. The wife said:
"I don't see what we want with a house, for I was born in a hospital, reared in a boarding school, married in a church; I eat in a restaurant; when I am sick I go to a hospital; and when I die the undertaker will take me; I think all we need is a garage with a bedroom attached."
On January 1, 1927, there were twenty million cars in America, an average of one for every family in the United States, and there were almost as many telephones. Daily papers had a circulation of thirty-eight millions an issue, and Sunday papers a circulation of twenty-five millions an issue; there was one [64/65] magazine per person each month; sixty million individual admission tickets to movies weekly; and finally nearly ten million radios in homes. These are today dominant factors in the transformation of the home. The home as a center of spiritual culture seems to be rapidly disappearing. Professor Ruch of the University of California recently looked up the literature on the home. To his astonishment he discovered there is none worthy the name. Plenty of articles on sex there are, but little on the home. He turned to Drinkwater's Outline of Literature; not a single piece of literature or work of art on the home. He turned to Eliot's fifty volumes of Harvard Classics; not a single article on the home. He turned to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and found no article on the home; nor any reference to it in the index.
Isn't it time for the Christian who believes in the altar in the church to revive the altar in the home; to make the table a place for high and spiritual and sacramental communion in the bigger and better things of life; to revive the blessing of the food and the thanksgiving after it; and to take a book, say like Dean Robbins' new book on Family Devotions with daily Scripture readings and prayers, and gather the [65/66] children round him, and day after day renew the family dedication to the divine Master of the house?
And now let us remind ourselves once more that the altar stands for sacrifice and that when we speak of the altar in the home, we mean the Christian principle of sacrifice, the Christian principle of the Cross at the center of our family life. What is the significance of Christian marriage? Listen to the words of the Church's service. The significance is made quite clear: "Signifying unto us the mystical union between Christ and His Church." He is the Bridegroom: his Church is the bride for which He gave Himself. "Husbands," says the Apostle, "love your wives! Wives, be subject to your husbands! Children, obey your parents!" How old-fashioned it all sounds—yes, and how sacrificial, how Christian! A home without sacrifice is hell. A man doing what he pleases, a wife utterly selfish and self-concerned, and children living to get and never to give; a home without discipline, without hard tasks, without the astringent quality of self-denial, without the hallowing of sacrifice, is a poor home.
Darwin went as naturalist on the epoch-making voyage of the "Beagle," only because Professor Hooker of Cambridge, [66/67] who was eager to go, gave it up because his wife's "pained expression" at the idea outweighed his own ambitions. Professor Hooker was a great naturalist; he was even a greater husband. Mrs. Benjamin Disraeli, accompanying her great husband to Parliament on the day of a great debate, had her hand crushed by the footman, who shut the carriage door too suddenly, but she endured agony in silence for fear Disraeli should be worried when he needed all his calm. She was a real wife.
"In the reign of Emperor Yung-lo a new tower was to be built and the Son of Heaven ordered five bells to be cast. Time and again some accident occurred in the melting or setting of the bells, so that they gave out a faulty sound. Amazed, the Emperor threatened the Mandarin bell-maker that failure again meant loss of his head. His daughter Kone went to a seer and asked advice. He consulted the planetary and announced that all would be well if a maiden's blood were mingled with the metal. The metal was melted in a white-hot stream. People stood round in anxious silence. All of a sudden Kone cried out, 'For my father!' and flung herself into the boiling mass. Her father [67/68] would have thrown himself after her, but the crowd held him back. As she flung herself in, one of her slippers came off. The Chinese name for slipper is Tsieh (Tsee). When the first bell was finished it gave a lovely tone. But at the end of every stroke was heard an echo 'Tsieh—Tsieh!' 'Hark,' cried the people; 'she is crying for her slipper!'
Home—lovely word—fragrant with memories of a dear mother and father, and lively with the songs and laughter of childhood companionship, rich in tender recollections of what was once and is perhaps no more; rich too in new meanings which the years have added to it; refuge from the uncompassionate world, and prophecy of the home life that is to be hereafter! Let us link with home that other word so bitter-sweet, so awful, so mysterious, so like a bridge between two worlds, so pontifical, so sacred all the way from Peniel to Calvary, and from Calvary to this place and moment—the word Altar. Altar in the Home. And we hear again the words, "The Master saith, 'Today I must abide at thy house. I will keep the Passover at thy house'!" Now that we hear His voice our feet are swift as music to bring Him home; we answer as bells ringing [68/69] for joy and as water hastening over stones, for a great longing has come upon us to have Him break bread with us—Him who is the Bread of Life—and to make our homes all glorious within by His adorable Presence.