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The high altar is so called from the fact that it is the chief altar in a church, and also because it is raised on an elevated plane in the sanctuary, where it may be seen simultaneously by all the faithful in the body of the church. It symbolizes Christ, and it serves at the same time as the banquet table on which He offers Himself through the hands of the priest to the Eternal Father; for Christ is present in our churches not only in a spiritual manner but really, truly, and substantially as the victim of a sacrifice. A sacrifice necessarily supposes a priest and an altar, and the Acts of the Apostles (ii, 42) plainly indicate that the faithful are to participate in the prayers of the sacrifice and to partake of the victim. Naturally the altar and priest were separated from the faithful, who, as St. Athanasius (Quaest. ad Antioch., 37) and Clement of Alexandria (Strom., vii, 7) inform us, were instructed by the Apostles to pray, according to the traditions of the Mosaic Law, facing the East. Hence in the early days of the Church the altar was usually placed in a chapel at the head of the edifice, the back of which, whatever may have been the character of the building, looked directly towards the East, in such a way that it could be seen from any part by the faithful. When it was impossible to erect a church in such a manner the altar was located opposite the chief doorway.
In olden times there was but one altar in a church. The Christian Fathers speak of one altar only, and St. Ignatius (Ep. ad Philadelph., 5) refers to this practice when he says: "One altar, as there is one bishop " ( Unum altare omni Ecclesiae et unus Episcopus ). This altar was erected in the middle of the sanctuary between the bishop's throne, which stood in the apse, and the communion-rail, which separated the sanctuary from the body of the church. On it Divine services were celebrated by the bishop only, assisted by the clergy, who received Holy Communion from his hands. Although each church had but one altar, there were oratories erected near or around the church in which Mass was celebrated. This custom is still maintained throughout the East, so that the liturgical or high altar of the solemn sacrifice is isolated from what may be called the altars of devotional sacrifice on which Mass is said privately. Later on, in the time of St. Ambrose (fourth century), we find the custom of having more than one altar in a church; and St. Gregory (sixth century) evidently approves of the same by sending to Palladius, Bishop of Saintes, France, relics for four altars which, of the thirteen erected in his church, had remained unconsecrated for want of relics. After the introduction of private Masses the necessity of several or even many altars in each church arose. They were erected near the principal altar or in side chapels. The altar in the sanctuary or high chapel always remained the principal one of the church, and the pontifical services in cathedrals as well as the solemn functions in other churches invariably took place at the chief altar on Sundays, holidays, and other solemn occasions of the year.
When the custom of erecting the episcopal throne on the gospel side of the sanctuary became prevalent, the high altar was removed nearer to the wall of the apse. The object of this was that sufficient space might be allowed between the lowest step of the altar and the communion-rail (six to twelve feet) for the proper carrying out of the ceremonial, and for the accommodation of the clergy who frequently assisted in large numbers at the solemn celebration of Mass and of the Divine Offices. The high altar was erected on steps, which for symbolical reasons were usually of an uneven number -- three or five, including the upper platform ( predella ) and the pavement of the sanctuary, thus placing it on a higher level than the body of the church, a practice which is still maintained in our churches. In parish churches the Most Blessed Sacrament is regularly kept on the high altar, which accordingly should have a tabernacle for the reservation of the Sacred Species (S.R.C., 28 Nov., 1594; 21 Aug., 1863). The prescribed ornaments are a crucifix and six high candlesticks. The high altar in a church that is to be consecrated should be a fixed altar (see ALTAR, FORM OF), which according to the prescriptions of the Roman Pontifical (h.l.) is itself to be consecrated simultaneously with the solemn dedication of the church edifice. Hence it must stand free on all sides, allowing ample room for the consecrator to move around it. As its name indicates, the high altar, being the chief place for the enactment of the sacrificial function, is to be prominent not only by its position but also by the richness of its material and ornamentation. Apart from the liturgical part of the Mass, it serves as the repository for the Eucharistic Presence and becomes the centre of all the more solemn parochial functions of the year.
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