“We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.”
After taking this verse into proper context as well as examining the Greek, you will find the meaning of the word “altar” to have a very literal meaning. Orthodox churches continue the pre-modern practice of Christianity of having altars in their sanctuaries, altars that – as the Scripture above speaks – do not allow non-believers to eat from.
This topic deserves much more attention than what I am about to give it here, but this can certainly be a fine spot to launch off of: The altar’s relation to the Word (revelation).
The altar in an Orthodox church does not only represent the continual outpouring of Christ’s sacrafice but also the Word of God made manifest amongst us, just as it becomes manifest among us within preaching. The Word of God (Christ’s manifestation) is not, as you know, limited to the English language, it extends much further than any vocabulary; so much so that it actually begins to manifest in a stationary vocabulary, one that is actually existential!
Language, as we know, relies strictly on networks of small symbols that create patterns of thought. Now think back to the ancient times of the early church and how they used paintings on the walls of the catacombs. Think of how Christ told all the stories He did and how He prompted St. John to use the symbolic imagery in the book of Revelation. Or, better yet, think of how Christ used symbolic patterns of thought when He initiated the Lord’s Supper.
God uses more than phonetic symbols to reveal His plan, and if this is the case, then what other types of symbols does He use? We see the 10th verse of the 13th Chapter of Hebrews state that we have an “altar.” Ancient documents show us that the early church did indeed use an altar and the verse in Hebrews shows that this is of apostolic origin.
The altars in our churches are not simply practical means to perform the offertory and to hold the bread and wine. Our altars represent the slayed lamb of God, Jesus Christ. When the priest consecrates the elements, the Holy Spirit is thrust upon themwith the very power of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. This requires more than just a standard table. This requires the sanctity of an altar, a table that is set apart with proper theology in mind so as to speak the power of Christ to the people and to reverence the body and blood of Christ.
Like the candles and the crucifix, the altar carries a symbolic thrust to it. As the minister preaches the crucifixion of Christ so the altar preaches the crucifixion of Christ. And as you know, when God’s Word is transmitted, grace, in its supernatural form, takes precedence. The symbolic nature of God’s Word is not just intellectual content. The symbolic nature of God’s Word is much more. His Word only begins as intellectual content. It then becomes psychological – as it enters the mind – and later, supernatural – as it takes residence in the soul/psyche.
But everything on earth works this way, right? Everything has a psychological and supernatural effect on us. Yes, indeed, but nothing other than what you see within the context of the Church began with the revelation of Jesus Christ to His people on earth. Nothing else has historical succession to the awesome moments of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. Nothing else!