“Fr. Petros, at the beginning and end of Mass I’ve noticed for years that the priest kisses the altar. Why does he do that?” Andrew Scott (Mulanje – MALAWI)
Dear Andrew, everything that happens at Mass is richly imbued with meaning. This is especially true of the reverence that the priest gives the altar during the entrance procession and at the conclusion of Mass.
Every time a priest kisses or reverences the altar, he does so in order to honour the altar of sacrifice (which represents Christ) where the miracle of the Eucharist occurs, but also for another reason deeply rooted in ancient Christian tradition: to reverence the relics of the saint or martyr placed within the altar itself.
A). During Persecutions
During the first centuries of Church history, Masses were often celebrated in the underground catacombs on stone slabs covering the tomb of a martyr. This was done in order to reverence the martyr and their heroic and ultimate sacrifice for the Lord. This also was done out of necessity: Being a Christian was illegal throughout the Roman Empire (thus the existence of martyrs) and the Mass had to be celebrated in secret.
B). 313 AD Edict of Constantine
When the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity early in 313 AD, the celebration of the Mass moved from underground to above ground, from the catacombs to public buildings or Churches. When this transition occurred, the practice and tradition of venerating the martyrs was not left behind but continued to be an important dimension of the Mass.
C). The Tradition
The tradition of building Churches above the tombs or remains of martyrs was commonplace. The basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome are good examples of this. Where this was not possible, a stone slab with a first-class relic – a part of the body of a saint – within it often was placed on top of the altar itself.
i). Store: wearing a stole symbolises the taking on of the Yoke of Christ’s service (Matthew 11:29-30). The stole has a small cross in its middle at the nape of the neck. The Bishop or priest may kiss this cross before putting on the stole as a symbol that they take on Christ’s yoke and carry His cross in the spirit of willingness and love.
ii). Gospel: The priest or Deacon kisses the Book of Gospels for the same reason that the congregation stands during Mass while the Gospel is being read: to show respect to the Good News of Jesus Christ, which the Gospel is.
When a priest kisses the altar, he is reverencing the person of Christ, which the altar represents, and is also, even if they are not present, continuing the ancient tradition of honouring the great and heroic sacrifice of the martyrs.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Bishops, 2003.
The Roman Pontifical. Rome.: Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar, editio typica, 1984, Chapter 7.