We have recently been discussing the concern within in the Church that people are losing a sense of the “real presence”, that is, the belief that Christ is truly present in the consecrated bread and wine we receive at Mass.
One factor contributing to a change in attitude is that whereas the attention of people at Mass in the past was drawn towards the tabernacle on a high altar, the liturgical focus is now rightly on the altar itself.
The problem with this has been that we have often failed to properly form people in understanding the true importance of the altar as the place where the Eucharistic sacrifice takes place. Sometimes people have been under the impression that the tabernacle was what made the altar, even the sanctuary, holy. This is not surprising given the attention directed towards the tabernacle in older churches.
We need to remember that the altar is holy not because of the Eucharist that may have been reserved on it, but because of the Eucharist which is formed upon it when we bring forth the gifts of bread and wine, and ask God to send the Holy Spirit to change them into the Body and Blood of Christ. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (no. 296), tells us that:
The altar on which the Sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs is also the table of the Lord to which the People of God is called together to participate in the Mass, as well as the centre of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist.
The General Instruction (no. 298) also reminds us of the dignity of the altar, and that it is not just a table where Mass is celebrated, but in itself a symbol of Christ:
It is appropriate to have a fixed altar in every church, since it more clearly and permanently signifies Christ Jesus, the living stone.