One of the three key areas in the celebration of the Mass, the altar, the table of the Lord, represents the presence of Christ in our midst and is the centre point of community gathered together to celebrate the Mass. To strengthen the identity of the altar with the body of the Lord each altar is marked with five crosses representing the wounds of Christ. It is for this reason that Father Paul and Deacon Michael kiss the altar and it is honoured with incense at the beginning of every Mass, why it has a cloth and candles placed on it and why it is kissed again at the end of Mass. Other than what is needed for the celebration of Mass nothing should ever be placed on the altar and nothing placed on the altar should obscure what is happening on it – which is why the flower arrangement in the picture is where it is.
This is also why we bow to the altar as well as genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament at the beginning and end of every Mass and why it is important to bow to the altar when crossing in front of it (unless the Blessed Sacrament is present).
Many older Catholics will remember the altar being against the back wall of the church will Mass celebrated in Latin with the priest having his back to the people – it was here when the church was first opened. Following the Second Vatican Council that met in the early 1960s the celebration of the Mass went back to what it had been in the early church. The altar became free-standing and Mass was celebrated with the priest facing the people in the local language.
Assisted by Deacon Michael, the priest celebrates the whole of the second part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, standing at the altar.