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One of the most symbolic and recognizable elements within any Masonic lodge is the Masonic altar. In every lodge, the altar houses the Holy book (s) and is a symbol of Freemasonry’s place of communion with the Supreme Architect of the universe.
Ordinarily, altars are found in places of worship, such as churches, temples, and shrines. Altars are prevalent in the religions of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Shinto, and Hinduism. But they have also been a fixture within Masonic temples for as long as Freemasonry has existed.
Throughout history, altars have been utilized in different ways by cultures across the world. This post will delve into the history of the Masonic altar, understand its significance, and discuss why it’s an essential element of modern-day Masonic lodges.
The history of the altar
The historical story of the altar is noteworthy and fascinating. Throughout history, the altar has symbolized man’s search for God. No matter how barbaric, vindictive, or cruel humankind has been in the past, the altar is where man believes he can communicate directly with God and has come to represent a very sacred place.
Regardless of a particular culture’s traditions, the altar has always been a place around which people can congregate and connect with God. Often, sermons are delivered directly from the altar and are read by a preacher from a Holy Book.
What’s more, in ancient civilizations, sacrifices were often served up to God at the altar. The sacrifices were commonly of animals and luxurious possessions, but many tribes and cultures even offered human sacrifices to the Gods.
Regardless of the altar’s use in the past, it was universally held as a sacred site, and anyone touching it had to cleanse themselves beforehand. This was particularly the case for priests and all other religious authorities who were about to read and preach from the altar. This was because the altar was seen as the most exalted position in the place of worship.
In Christianity, one of the earliest altars was a rough, unhewn stone that served as a pedestal from which God’s word could be disseminated amongst His followers. In the Bible, there are many instances in which God instructs his followers to erect temples, such as when King Solomon built a brass altar in Chronicles.
When the children of Israel were moving from Egypt, however, we know the altar was made of wood and brass. The hollow center was covered by a mesh grate that was placed about halfway down the altar. Under the grate, earth was placed, and poles were attached to either side to carry the altar from one place to another.
However, as faith in God grew, the altar was refined and was built of hewn stone. It was a perfect cube that was cut, carved, and wrought, upon which men laid beautiful jewels and offerings to God. It is from such altars that in other civilizations that sacrifices would be placed to the Gods.
Indeed, as the practice of offerings being made to God became more widespread, many temples and places of worship commonly included two altars. The first would be a place upon which offerings could be made, and the second was a place for incense.
The altar of sacrifice would usually stand in front of the temple, where the congregation could offer something directly to God. The altar of incense, which burned the fragrance of worship, stood within the temple, usually toward the back.
Regardless of how far back we go in the history of human society, the altar has been at the center of human life. It is a place where sins can be cleansed, and Gods can be appeased, and it has developed significant religious symbolism.
In some respects, the altar served as an equalizer. It is a place at which slaves and owners could congregate and connect with their God. Historically, it has been a place where criminals have felt most safe, as the altar offers protection under God, and any act of violence within its vicinity would be considered sacrilegious.
Why is the altar so significant?
In all societies across human history, the altar was a central point at which people believed they could be closest to God or the multiple Gods they believed in.
To understand why the altar is so significant and viewed by religious people, we can read the holy scriptures to ascertain the significance placed on the altar as a place of worship by God.
The scriptures of the Holy books tell us that men must erect an altar specifically to communicate with God. God commanded that men build an altar unto Him, with the exact purpose of offering things to him and repenting for their sins. In many instances in the scriptures, God even articulates the type of materials that should be used to construct an altar. Therefore, the construction of an altar is seen as a direct commandment from God and should be followed by his flock.
Understanding the significance of the Masonic altar
Although Freemasonry isn’t a religion, and the Masonic altar is not a place upon which any type of sacrifice is made, the Masonic altar shares much of its symbolic significance with the world’s most prominent religions.
First and foremost, the Masonic altar symbolizes Masons’ quest to communicate with their creator or the universe’s Supreme Architect. It’s important to remember here that Masons must profess a belief in a supreme being in order to join the fraternity.
Fundamentally, the Masonic altar represents the importance of brothers being seen in a positive light by the Supreme Being and upholding Masonic values throughout their lives. Brothers must live by the Masonic code, and the altar is a reminder that the Supreme Being is continuously watching them, and their actions will be held to account.
It can also be said that the altar is a reminder to Masons that they are in pursuit of a righteous activity that pleases the Supreme Being, and Freemasonry is said to help brothers on their journeys to becoming more righteous, virtuous men.
Related: How Freemasonry makes men better
Within lodges across the world, the Masonic altar is placed deliberately and positioned accordingly. In English lodges, the altar stands in front of the Master in the East. In the York Rite, it is placed in the center of the lodge, as it signifies the point at which all Masonic activity revolves around.
Much like altars in places of worship, the Masonic altar is not merely a piece of furniture upon which the Holy book is placed. It is built into lodges to signify what it represents and is a reminder of the spirituality present within Masonic beliefs.
The altar’s position within the lodge is symbolic of what Freemasonry believes the altar should be in real life. That is a center of union and fellowship, and not a cause of division as unfortunately is now so often the case.
Ultimately, Freemasonry seeks to unite men and not divide them. In some respects, this is why it is significantly different from some of the world’s most prominent religions. Religions, by their nature, divide people’s beliefs and separate them because of dogmatic traditions.
Freemasonry stops short of instructing brothers’ religious beliefs; instead, the altar is present as a constant reminder that whatever their beliefs, God is watching them, and their actions should reflect the high moral code expected of Masons.
Conclusion: the importance of the Masonic altar
As we have explored, the Masonic altar is of vital symbolic importance to Freemasonry today. Throughout history, the altar has represented the point within places of worship that followers can communicate with God.
In certain civilizations in the past, people believed that they could gain the good grace of God by offering animal sacrifices at the altar, as well as precious jewels. People thought that such sacrifice would show God how grateful they were for his presence and how sorry they were for any sins they committed.
Although Freemasonry is not a religion, an altar is placed within every Masonic lodge to represent the importance of belief in the Supreme Being. The Masonic altar is purposefully placed within the lodge and holds the Holy book.
For Masons, the altar symbolizes the importance of living a virtuous life in the eyes of God and is a constant reminder that God is watching over them.