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Dear Father Angelo,
A small question. As far as I know, starting from the sixth century until 1970 the celebrant observed the rite of the Mass turning his back to the people, and facing the altar.
Was this practice the same as in the early centuries?
In the first centuries of Church history, was Mass celebrated as it currently is, following the Second Vatican Council’s reform?
I wait for your answer and thank you in advance.
God bless you,

Dear Alessandro,

  1. until the sixth century there was no single way to position the altar. Sometimes it was placed against the wall of the Church’s apse, or it was detached from the wall and erected so that the Mass could be celebrated facing the people.
    Sometimes, however, the way it was erected allowed the choir behind and the people before.
  2. I read a lot of interesting information in an ancient text on the Liturgy, all useful to get a good grasp of how things have developed.
    I transcribe them verbatim, except for the numbering – which I listed – and the underlining in bold and italics, to focus on the crucial statements.
  3. By altar we mean «a flat horizontal surface, elevated from the ground, mainly intended for the Sacrifice of the Mass».
    The pagans called the altar an aedicule dedicated to the gods; a smaller building, called “ara”, was used more for libations on the graves of the dead. Christian language prefers the first term, even though it does not suggest the same form of construction – because, really, the sacrifice was offered on the altars (aedicules).
  4. Altar is first mentioned by St. Paul (Heb 13:10); but we get clear and explicit testimony of the Eucharistic altar thanks to St. Irenaeus (Contra Haer., IV, 18, 6); in the «Didache» (written from the second half of the first century, editor’s note) and in the Apostolic Fathers the Sacrifice is mentioned, while the altar is not.
  5. The first altars were modeled on the shape of the table on which Our Lord celebrated the first Mass; especially since the first Christian generations could not easily make sacrifices for worship, and were forced to gather in private homes or in the synagogues of the Jews of the Diaspora, where a fixed table or altar was not convenient, due to the use of the premises being.
    Consequently, the usual furniture of the daily meal was not disdained for the sacred banquet.
  6. Up to the IX century in the East and to the XI century in the West, the use of altar-tables was maintained here and there; starting from the Council of Epaona (517) it became a rule that the altars, if made of stone, had to be consecrated with the sacred chrism.
    Nevertheless the stone altar, and thus of a stable shape, is ancient. St. Augustine tells us (De Civit. Dei, VIII, 27) of an altar built over the body of a martyr; also, the illustrators of primitive Christian monuments commonly admit that the faithful, taking refuge in the catacombs for liturgical meetings in the throes of persecution, or rushing to them for the anniversary celebration of some distinguished martyrs, witnessed the divine sacrifice celebrated above the tomb of a martyr. And the description of the altar on the tomb is easy: the lid of the tomb serves as a table. However, in Roman cemeteries, the stone or marmoreal table often stands alone, against the wall or isolated near the burial.
  7. In building churches, erecting the altar – even if made of wood – became a stable practice and the relationship between the sepulcher of the martyrs and the altar was maintained, enclosing the body of a martyr in the latter, which took the form of a tomb.
    In Rome, as can still be seen in several churches, the sacred relics were encased in precious granite, porphyry or basalt tanks that had once been used at the baths, and covered with an equally valuable slab; this way, the altar was beautiful and ready as a very decorous form of tomb. The tomb – altar was abandoned when it was impossible to bury entire bodies or at least the distinguished relics of a martyr into it; the few and tiny relics were positioned in a niche carved into the table, so the altar was either massive or in the form of a table.
  8. When we read of altars made of gold, silver, bronze, built thanks to the generosity of the emperors, etc., we should think of altars of wood or stone, covered with metals; today’s ”frontal” is considered a substitute for such coverings.
  9. The first churches had just one altar, this being sufficient for liturgical needs due to concelebration, even when there were numerous priests.
    This single altar, then as now, either leaned against the wall of the apse’s back so that the celebrant turned his back to the choir and to the people, or stood in the middle of the apse so that the celebrant either had the choir facing and the people behind, or the choir behind and the main entrance door before him, depending on whether or not the orientation was followed in the temple.
  10. During the fifth-sixth centuries, when devotional or private Masses were installed in churches and the priest could celebrate several daily Masses (up to nine, in some cases), the principle of unity of the altar was sacrificed, because just one altar wasn’t enough. In the beginning, care was taken not to openly disrupt the architecture of the previous centuries and the altars were erected in chapels or oratories around the churches, almost like stand-alone aedicules independent from the main body of the church.
  11. The altar is a symbol of the unity of the Church; that’s why in the ancient basilicas there was only one altar, as all were one: the ”plebs” (people) who gathered in the local church, the bishop, and the Chair. The erection of another altar was a sign of schism, and the forceful phrase of Saint Octatus of Milevi was well known, to describe the separation movement which took place in Carthage in 312: «Altare contra altare erectum est» (an altar was erected against the Altar). «Altare Christus est» (the Altar is Christ) reads the Roman Pontifical, and the whole rite of Consecration is imbued with this idea.
    The stone is the biblical figure of Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of the Church (Heb 7:26): therefore only stone altars are admitted; five crosses are engraved on the stone, to represent the five wounds of the Redeemer; abundant purifications and several anointings are performed, because Jesus Christ is the eternal Pontiff «holy, innocent, without blemish» and is the One of whom it was written: ”The spirit of Lord rests on me, for this He anointed me”. «The altar recalls the one described in Revelation (6.9) under which the voices of those who were murdered for their faith are heard; for this reason the relics of so many martyrs are required in its consecration» (Luigi Rodolfo Barin, Catechismo liturgico, I, pp. 300-304).
  12. When the practice of concelebration ceased, it was necessary to erect several altars in the same church, to give all priests the opportunity to celebrate.
    The altars then took on the common form in use up to the Second Vatican Council: leaning against the wall, with the people behind the celebrant.
    I thank you for this question that has allowed me to spell out how things developed, and to make all this information available for many of us.
    I will remember you to the Lord and I bless you.
    Father Angelo