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Altar Ego

Dr. Wallenfang reflects on the gift of the Eucharist by identifying the way it protects one from a life at risk of false worship, and guides one into a life of humble dependence on God

by Dr. Donald Wallenfang, OCDS

Have you ever wondered why God became human? Yes, to save us, but how? “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:53, 56). The eternal Word became flesh so that flesh might become embodied Word and Eucharist. By drawing near to Jesus in the Eucharist and partaking of his irrevocable gift of himself to us, we enter into the fullness of fellowship with the Most Holy Trinity and with each other as true brothers and sisters in Christ (see 1 John 1:3–4). We are the family of God inasmuch as we all share one “Father, from whom every family on earth is named” (Ephesians 3:14–15). Yet families grieve together, eat together, and feast together. How can we call ourselves “the family of God” if we do not gather around the table of the Lord? And what is the Lord’s table if not the altar of sacrifice where bread becomes body and wine becomes blood? On what altar do you make your offerings? At what altar do you worship?

Human history has been haunted by the perennial problem of false worship. We read in the Books of 1 and 2 Kings that almost every king of Israel and Judah was not content with worshiping at the altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Instead, they built altars all around the land to offer sacrifices to a pantheon of unreal deities. One of the few kings who humbled himself before the LORD was King Josiah of Judah. What made him a great king? He restored the observance of the Torah in his kingdom and leveled and burned all the places of false worship with their impotent altars. True worship was restored at the Jerusalem Temple alone, the place where the sacred name of God—YHWH—was to be encountered.

How is the history of the people of Israel instructive for us today? Everyone is worshiping something. Everyone bows down before at least one altar of sacrifice. Let us consider again, what is the altar at which you worship? For faithful Catholics, just like for King Josiah, there is only one altar of worship: the altar upon which Jesus the Good Shepherd feeds his lambs, “For he is our God, and we are his people, the flock he shepherds” (Psalm 95:7). This is the reason why Catholics never should stop coming to Mass. If we are not worshiping at the altar of Jesus, we will be found worshiping at any number of altars erected to phony gods. The Catholic who neglects to gather around the one true altar of sacrifice trusts more in his own ego than in the God who saves. In such a case, a genuine altar ego is needed.

Approaching the altar in the church requires a renunciation of self-sufficiency—a holy inversion of the ego, “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). An exodus of the ego away from itself in the direction of “the Wholly Other” (Pope Saint Gregory the Great). The Gordian Knot of original sin remains untied to the degree that the ego and all its exaggerated desires are “dashed upon Christ” (Rule of Saint Benedict) and his altar of offering. The radically dependent presence of the ego, always teetering on the verge of nonexistence, is meant to give way to the Real Presence of the Word made flesh for us and for our salvation. At the heart of the prayer of dedication of a new altar in the church, we find the words: “Blessed is the Church, God’s dwelling place with the human race, a holy temple built of living stones, standing upon the foundation of the Apostles with Christ Jesus its chief cornerstone.” Because God dwells with us through his church—the church that we are—and because his indwelling among us circulates through the unity of the church altar and the cross, we are prevented from drifting toward nonexistence.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of several copious fruits generated by the Eucharist:

·  The Eucharist augments our union with Christ (1391–92)

·  The Eucharist separates us from sin, wiping away venial sins and preserving us from future mortal sins (1393–95)

·  The Eucharist makes the church by uniting the members of the mystical body of Christ to their head (1396)

·  The Eucharist commits us to the poor (1397)

·  The Eucharist summons all followers of Christ to perfect unity (1398–1401)

·  The Eucharist gives us a pledge of the glory to come (1402–1405)


The Catechism identifies the principal fruit of receiving the Eucharist as “an intimate union with Christ Jesus” since “life in Christ has its foundation in the Eucharistic banquet” (1391). The Eucharist is the “living charity” that “strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life” (1393). Of course, we must cooperate freely with divine grace for it to take root in our lives. It is not an automatic operation. Rather, by uniting ourselves to the Marian fiat of the Church—“let it be done unto me”—our hearts dilate to the measure of living charity that is channeled in and through them. Is there any gift on earth that compares to the Eucharist—the body, blood, soul, and divinity of the one who made us and has come to save us? What profound reconciling power there is hidden in this little Sacrament of uncreated love!

By surrendering our lives in absolute dependence on the altar where heaven meets earth, we overcome the Promethean lie of self-sufficiency and the secular dream of blasé self-determination. Who would deny that this life is one storm after another, even more so in the spiritual life than in comparison with natural weather patterns? How are we to survive and even thrive through these storms if not by remaining within the hull of the Barque of Saint Peter the Fisherman, serene in the fray? Moreover, how else will the storms of the spirit be calmed if not by admitting Jesus into the barque of our souls through holy Communion? As the author of the Letter of the Hebrews charges us, “We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near” (10:25). Regarding this fast-approaching day, Saint Paul reminds us that “now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). May each one of us be able to say with the Psalmist, “Send your light and your fidelity, that they may be my guide; let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place of your dwelling, that I may come to the altar of God, to God, my joy, my delight” (Psalm 43:3–4).

by Dr. Donald Wallenfang, OCDS

Dr. Donald Wallenfang, OCDS

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Sacred Heart Major Seminary is a Christ-centered Catholic community of faith and higher learning committed to forming leaders who will proclaim the good news of Christ to the people of our time. As a leading center of the New Evangelization, Sacred Heart serves the needs of the Archdiocese of Detroit and contributes to the mission of the universal Church.