Since while considering the start of Mass we have been on the topic of “liturgical gestures of respect” in these morceaux during the past few weeks, I want to point out one more that is obvious at the beginning of the Mass. When the priests and deacons enter the sanctuary, they kiss the altar as a sign of honor. This universal human sign of affection highlights the importance of the object which is kissed.
The altar is not just a table, although it may well resemble one. It is not just a tombstone, although it may well be (like our altar at the Cathedral) a slab of marble. It is the holiest place in the church, the central focus of Catholic worship, on which Christ’s own sacrifice is made real again. Since it enthrones the Body and Blood of the Lord during Mass, even at other times it is special place and deserving of deep respect.
When I was young, the pastor in my home parish took special pains to instruct all of us altar servers on the altar’s importance. We “dressed” it in special, clean linen cloths, and even covered it with a gold-cloth cover when Mass was over. He NEVER let us place ANYTHING on the altar that didn’t belong there: he made sure we didn’t consider it Ajust a shelf” for odds and ends! I hope we still do as good a job insisting on this even today!