How Using the Altar from Both Sides Teaches the Lord’s Supper More Clearly
It was not until the middle ages that the altars of the Christian church were placed against the chancel wall. This was done for the purpose of accenting the medieval distortion of the Lord’s Supper, which made it a propitiatory sacrifice. The mistaken belief was that Christ’s body and blood were being offered again each time the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, to atone for sins once again, neglecting the understanding that Jesus accomplished our atonement once-for-all, on the cross of Calvary and that the Lord’s Supper is a distribution of the benefits through Jesus’ body and blood in which we receive forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation (I Corinthians 10:16 ; Luke 22:27 ).
While Martin Luther strongly wanted to maintain the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the sacrament as it is consecrated, distributed and received, he was adamant that the Lord’s Supper was not a re-sacrificing of Jesus over and over again. In fact, Luther called that false teaching a blasphemy. And in His careful reforms of the Communion liturgy, one of the suggestions he made was that, like the early church, that Lutherans pull the altars away from the chancel wall so that the pastor can face the people for the consecration (the Words of Institution). After all, Jesus was sitting at table with the twelve in the upper room and spoke to them when He instituted the Blessed Sacrament. And so when the pastor speaks the Words of Institution “in the stead and by the command of Christ” he speaks them to the people over the bread and wine. Those words are Gospel ministry, our Confessions state (Ap. XXIV).
Luther advocated a free standing altar in his comments on his 1526 [Deutsche Messe] German Mass [Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 53 p.69]. His preference was for the pastor to face the people when proclaiming the words of institution since these words were the Gospel of the service of Holy Communion. Luther wrote: “In the true mass, however, of real Christians, the altar should not remain where it is, and the priest should always face the people as Christ doubtlessly did in the Last Supper.” Hence we see this is perfectly Lutheran.
The free standing altar is hardly an innovation in Christianity. It is the pattern of the house churches, before Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, and the early church, after the conversion of Emperor Constantine. Historic research and a revival in reformation studies have led many congregations to bring the altar back to the people and have the pastor speak to the people instead of the wall. It emphasizes a biblical, traditional, Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace, a mysterious meal in which Christ’s body and blood are given for the forgiveness of sins.
Where there is a freestanding altar, there will not be a crucifix on the altar itself but behind or above the altar or else a processional crucifix is used.