A home altar is an Ebenezer, a stone of remembrance. It is a semi-public display of one’s priorities in life. You may hide it away in a back room, following the advice of Jesus to go into your closet to pray, but it is a shared space, available for your whole family and for guests to see and use. Whether it is as simple as a prie-dieu or a table covered in a cloth, adorned with candles, a cross and other ornaments, the home altar is the place where the family experiences God’s saving mercies together, day in and day out, through every hill and valley of this life. It is a place where Christ is honored, sins are forgiven, and where the sweet incense of holy prayer and praise fills up the home, giving it warmth, vitality, and blessing the hearts and minds of all those who breathe it in. The home altar is a place of remembrance, a humble corner where morning and evening sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving shape us and etch the characters of a Godly life into the very fibers of our being. It is a place where angels descend and ascend upon us, so that observing ourselves in the act of praise we discover ourselves, our true selves, the way we are in Christ and will be forevermore.
In this way, the home altar is deceptively ordinary. It provides a heavenly meeting place within the domestic life. Indeed, it cannot be completely cloistered away, but is incorporated into the mundaneness of the family and all of its messiness. During the day the prie-dieu becomes a chair for a toddler, the kneeler an imaginary roadway for the older brother’s Hot Wheels, and the prayer corner itself is often subject to the arguments, the silliness, and sadness of everyday conversation. But, this little holy place in an often unholy house, is exactly where Christ comes to meet us. So that when the last collect is prayed and a final tune by Tallis is sung, the family looks back in surprise, to say along with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not.”
The home altar at my house took some time and effort to build. It is a prie-dieu and a shelf that I made with some help from my dad, using the wood from the oak tree that stood outside my bedroom window in my childhood home. It was the first thing I saw every day when I gazed out of the window, and now a piece of it remains with me as my family and I receive our first daily glimpses from the Holy Scriptures as we gather around it. I decided that my family needed a specific place for prayer within our house because I was having difficulty remembering to pray, to kneel before the Lord and seek his face on a regular basis. And, I knew that having a visual reminder of prayer nearby, a place that I would have to live with, to go out of my way to avoid, a place that would confront me with my spiritual lethargy, would also give me a place to fall on my knees in repentance.
There is holiness in every Christian home by virtue of the Christian people that dwell there, but for many there is no holy place there, besides what is used for some other common purpose. To say that every place in the home is already holy due to the presence of holy people is to draw no distinction between the common and the uncommon and holy. The dinner table, for example, is primarily for meals, homework, and family conversation. It is not a place set apart for the worship of God, and as often as we pass through the kitchen, toss our homework on it or spill our soup on it, the dinner table does not necessarily remind us of Christ’s sacrifice and his love for us, nor does it stand in our memory as the place where God’s name is honored in the home. Some devoted Christian parents lead their families in prayer around the dinner table every morning and every night, and they are to be commended for it. But there are many other families that need a stone of remembrance, an ordinary rock, lifted up and anointed with holy oil so that in its oddness and difference from all the other furniture in the house, it immediately strikes the mind as an uncommon place, and in passing by it we pause, if only for a moment, and we remember. We remember the sacrifice of Christ and our duty to offer the sacrifice of prayer in the morning and in the evening. Most families need this stone of remembrance.
Of course, the very fact that the home altar is situated within a domestic dwelling makes it a very common place, ironically, a holy place within an often unholy environment, as I mentioned above. This sets the home altar apart from the holy altar in the sanctuary of the local parish, a building that is consecrated specifically for the offering of the many prayers of many families. Yet, it is appropriate to speak of both places, the home altar and the parish altar as holy places. Lancelot Andrewes puts this prayer into the mouth of the priest in his The Form of Consecration of a Church:
O Lord God, mighty and glorious, and of incomprehensible Majesty, thou fillest Heaven and Earth with the Glory of thy presence, and canst not be contained within any the largest compass, much less within the narrow walls of this Room; yet forasmuch as thou hast been pleased to command in thy holy Law, that we should put the Remembrance of thy Name upon places, and in every such place thou wilt come to us and bless us; we are here now assembled to put thy name upon this place, and the Memorial of it, to make it thy house, to devote and dedicate it for ever unto thee, utterly separating it from all worldly uses, and wholly and only consecrate it to the invocation of thy glorious Name.
Though Andrewes wrote this prayer for the consecration of a church, a similar blessing applies to any place where “two are three are gathered” in the name of Christ, including a space within the home. Indeed, though there are no sacraments in the home (unless there is a case of extreme illness), there is a connection between the home and parish altars. The one is a preparation for the other, the priestly prayers at the home altar throughout the week making way in the soul for rightly receiving the blessed body and blood of Christ from the priest at the parish altar. The home altar is the spiritual center of the home, the heart of the house in which God, in his good providence, has said to the family, “This is the place where I have put you to live and to love one another.” So, it is here at the home altar, more than any other place in the home that God comes to meet each family, to keep and to comfort each of us. And, so it is here that we raise our own domestic Ebenezer, where we fully expect to meet God while the angels descend and ascend upon us, despite our messiness, silliness, and Hot Wheels.