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Altar Table

We have men­tioned how the entire church build­ing is cen­tered around the altar table. The altar table does not mere­ly sym­bol­ize the table of the last sup­per. It is the sym­bol­ic and mys­ti­cal pres­ence of the heav­en­ly throne and table of the King­dom of God; the table of Christ the Word, the Lamb and the King of the ever-last­ing life of God’s glo­ri­fied domin­ion over all of creation.

The Book of the Gospels is per­pet­u­al­ly enthroned on the altar table. It is on the altar table that we offer the “blood­less sac­ri­fice” of Christ to the Father. And from the altar table we receive the Bread of Life, the Body and Blood of the Lord’s Passover Sup­per. This table is the “table of God’s King­dom” (Lk 13:29).

In Ortho­dox Tra­di­tion the altar table is often carved wood or stone. It is usu­al­ly vest­ed with col­or­ful mate­r­i­al to show its divine and heav­en­ly char­ac­ter. It should always be a sim­ple table of pro­por­tion­al dimen­sions, often a per­fect cube, and is always free-stand­ing so that it may be encircled.

On the altar table one always finds the anti­men­sion. This is the cloth depict­ing Christ in the tomb which con­tains the sig­na­ture of the bish­op and is the per­mis­sion for the local com­mu­ni­ty to gath­er as the Church. “Anti­men­sion” means lit­er­al­ly “instead of the table.” Since the bish­op is the prop­er pas­tor of the Church, the anti­men­sion is used instead of the bishop’s own table which is, obvi­ous­ly, in his own church build­ing, the cathe­dral—the place where the bish­op has his chair (cathe­dra).

The anti­men­sion usu­al­ly con­tains a rel­ic (nor­mal­ly a part of the body) of a saint which shows that the Church is built on the blood of the mar­tyrs and the lives of God’s holy peo­ple. This cus­tom comes from the ear­ly Church prac­tice of gath­er­ing and cel­e­brat­ing the eucharist on the graves of those who have lived and died for the Chris­t­ian faith. Usu­al­ly, a rel­ic of a saint is embed­ded in the altar table itself as well.

Also on the altar table there is a taber­na­cle, often in the shape of a church build­ing, which is a repos­i­to­ry for the gifts of holy com­mu­nion that are reserved for the sick and the dying. Behind the altar table there is usu­al­ly a sev­en-branched can­dle stand which comes from the Old Tes­ta­men­tal tra­di­tion of the Jew­ish tem­ple. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the Jerusalem tem­ple is high­ly val­ued in the Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion of wor­ship and church con­struc­tion as a “pro­to­type” of the true wor­ship “in spir­it and truth” of the King­dom of God (Jn 4:23).