When someone appears and pauses before the altar at the start of worship, then bows with a pious gesture of acknowledgement, it is called reverencing the altar. Why do many pastors and laypeople do this? Is there some sacred protocol being observed, some message they are silently conveying?
Some say it is because the altar holds the communion elements of bread and wine, traditionally believed to be or become the body and blood of Jesus. So we bow before the presence of that which is holy. We reverence the altar because Jesus is present in a very real way. God is there. We bow as a pious way to show respect for the presence of the Holy Other. That is what we were taught.
At one Lutheran church where my wife and I attended during the years I worked for the ELCA's hunger program, when the pastor or acolyte crossed the chancel area they would pause before the altar, take a quick bow and proceed to the other side. Sometimes the bow was so quick you could hardly notice it. I remember questioning the purpose and message it conveyed.
Now after 50 plus years of serving and worshiping in Lutheran churches, I still bow before the altar if that is the tradition of the church where I am worshiping. But I also turn to the congregation and reverence the people in the pews. My church has also taught me that God is present in people, the communion of saints. I may debate about the degree to which God is present at the table, but I am convinced that God is present in the people. Didn't Jesus say, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am present" (Matthew 18:20)?
Is there some way we could also reverence creation? Maybe we all need courage to think differently about why we reverence the altar and the sacramental presence of God. I am open to more conversation about this.
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