Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Three Altars

An anonymous commenter asked the following questions, which I am happy to explain:

Dear Diana, Can you explain what do you mean by "three" altars? Why is the marriage bed and dining table considered an altar? And how are these two altars related to the Eucharist in the Mass?
In addition to the Eucharist being a sacrifice, it is also a meal.  The Eucharist is also called "The Last Supper."  In every Catholic home, the painting or icon of "The Last Supper" is always in the dining room.  Why?  Because it recalls to our mind the last supper of Jesus and His Apostles when He instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The dining table is linked to the Eucharist in the Mass.  Just as God's family gather together in the banquet of the Mass to eat His Body and drink His Blood, so does the human family gather together around the dining table in a meal.  According to the Catholic Exchange website: 
In this way, a Catholic family is much like a Catholic church. In this domestic church, as in the parish church, an atmosphere of truth and friendship is fostered, assisted by art and ritual, and ordered intrinsically to the worship and service of God. Like any parish, a family is a community devoted to each other through Christ and for Christ. Members of a church gather at a table for a meal, for Communion, just as members of a family gather at a table for a meal, for communion. The power and potency of the family meal is a sign and source of wellbeing in Christ.
The Dining Room Altar

In the NCW, we are taught to eat our meals together as a family just as God's family eats together in a parish community.  Unfortunately, many families are split during meal time.  Rather than sitting at the family table for dinner, the father would eat his dinner in the living room watching the football game on TV.  Mother would be eating her dinner at the dining room while the children eat their dinner separately in their bedrooms. 

In the NCW, families are taught to eat their meals together at the dining table without any distractions (such as cell phones, TV, etc.).  They are instructed to use real china instead of paper plates during meals.  A family that prays over their meals together and dines together stays together. Thus, this dining room table is an altar in the domestic Church of the family and linked to the Eucharistic celebration of the Mass.  

The Eucharist is also called a "nuptial sacrament."  According to the Catholic Liturgical Library: 
27. The Eucharist, as the sacrament of charity, has a particular relationship with the love of man and woman united in marriage. A deeper understanding of this relationship is needed at the present time. (83) Pope John Paul II frequently spoke of the nuptial character of the Eucharist and its special relationship with the sacrament of Matrimony: "The Eucharist is the sacrament of our redemption. It is the sacrament of the Bridegroom and of the Bride."......... The Eucharist inexhaustibly strengthens the indissoluble unity and love of every Christian marriage. By the power of the sacrament, the marriage bond is intrinsically linked to the eucharistic unity of Christ the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church (cf. Eph 5:31-32).

Catholic Liturgical Library

St. John Paul II taught that the Eucharist is a sacrament between the Bridegroom (Christ) and of the Bride (the Church).  At the Eucharist of the Mass, when we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we become one with Christ, physically and spiritually.  

The union between man and woman in the marriage bed brings life (in this case a human baby).  But the union between Christ (the bridegroom) and the Church (the bride) brings eternal life (John 6:54).  Thus, the Eucharist in the Mass is called a "nuptial sacrament" because it brings into union Christ and His Church.  In other words, we become one with Christ when we eat His Body and drink His Blood at the altar.

In the human family, which is the domestic Church, the marriage bed is the third altar.  In many Catholic homes, a crucifix or cross is usually hung over the bed. This third altar recalls the marriage between Christ and His Church just as the second altar recalls the Last Supper of Christ and the Apostles. 


  1. Thanks for the explanation, Diana. I see that the Catholic Exchange website also called the dining room table an altar and that Pope John Paul II also called the Eucharist a nuptial sacrament. I thought that Kiko was making up the 3 altars and that this was solely his own personal teaching. Your sources showed that Kiko was using true Catholic teaching.

  2. God Almighty says, “‘Pharaoh king of Egypt is only a loud noise” (Jeremiah 46:17), but the Church is forever. Tim Rohr cannot destroy it.

  3. Dear Diana, there are excesses in the NCW that we are supposed to talk about. This idea of the "3 altars" could very well be one of those.

    First of all, explaining the idea of "3 altars" you assume that all Catholics are living in a family with spouses and kids all around. This is wrong! Many of the Catholic saints had never married and lived a life consecrated to Christ. Just like our ordained priests, friars and nuns also do. You should mention the singles and the elderly too, who lead a different lifestyle from that of a classic family.

    Next, you equate food for the body with food for the soul. Bodily function is never the same as a spiritual unity with Christ in the Eucharist. You eat and drink in order to sustain your body. You enjoy your food eating and drinking what you like. We also need to watch what we eat, because we need a healthy variety to stay healthy. Many people also follow special diets. How can you talk about sitting at an "altar" when you consume your food?

    Finally, the same goes with sex. The marriage bed is not a mystery, it is a well designed recreational piece of furniture. Many atheist people know very well, how to eat delicious food, drink awesome beverages and feel very good about themselves. The same Ancient Romans who persecuted the early church knew it well. They were famous about their feasts. The same atheist people may be experts of pleasure and sexual life. However, there might not be any sacred in their pleasure and expertise. Is their marriage bed also an "altar" even if they do not use it in a truly loving manner?

    Diana, the theology of "3 altars" seems to be a rather strange invention that not all Catholics can identify with. It is an evidence of a peculiar mind set, a neocatechumenal attempt to rewrite good old Catholic doctrines to fit some preconception. It is painful for some of us to see that the sacrament of Holy Eucharist is dragged down to this level of bodily centered approach.

    The Eucharist is a purely spiritual food. That is why a simple piece of wafer is sufficient for most Catholics even without a drop of wine. The wafer is both the body and blood of Christ! This is minimalism, but the catechism approves this experience of receiving the Holy Eucharist in the mass. If the NCW is receiving the Eucharist under both species in the form of a piece real unleavened bread and a sip of tasty red wine, I am fine with that also. However, you must know that your way of receiving the Eucharist is just a habit. It is in no way superior to receiving the most commonly used small piece of wafer on the tongue.

    I would like to make clear: to respond to the problem posed by the non-standard teaching of the "3 altars", there is no need for any kind of radicalism, protest, uprising, lawsuit or expulsion from the church. It also would not make the NCW heretic. Any JW kind of campaign against the "3 altars" would be misguided. However, I would like to see guarantees that the acceptance of this kind of theology and habit, along with other inventions from the NCW, won't ever be made mandatory for any Catholic believer.

    1. Dear grow up in faith,

      Even single people have a family despite that some of them live alone. Single and married people have a divine family. Mary is our Mother. God is our Father, and Christ is our brother. The angel and saints are our brothers and sisters who are around us all the time.

      As for the body and soul, they are one. You need food to sustain the body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The body is considered sacred and one should not neglect his/her body. The Body and Blood of Christ is food for our soul.

      The three altars is not a strange concept at all. In fact, I quoted the Catholic Exchange website, which speaks about the dining table as an altar and the Catholic family as resembling the Catholic Church. The Catholic Exchange website has nothing to do with the Neocatechumenal Way. I also quoted Pope John Paul II when he said that the Eucharist is linked to the conjugal act in marriage. This was taught in Theology of the Body. Therefore, the three altars was never invented by the Neocatechumenal Way. It derived from profound Catholic teaching.

      This Catholic teaching brought the Catholics in the Way to eat together at the dining table as a family. The children in the Way even decorate the dining table with flowers before they sit down to pray together as a family before eating. It also got the family to respect the parents' bedroom. Children in the Way are taught to knock at their parents' bedroom before entering.

    2. Before I walked in the Way, we were using paper plates so we don't have to do the dishes. I would have lunch cooked, but my husband and children would be eating at different times and in any place in the house except the dining room. Most of us have our lunch eaten in front of the TV.

      After joining the Way, everyone eats together at the dining table. We also use real dishes. The change made a difference. My husband helps me wash and dry the dishes. Everyone in my family communicates at the dining table while we eat. It was a refreshing change. The Catechists instructed us to cook the favorite meals on morning prayer so everyone in my family was looking forward to morning prayer. My oldest daughter would even help with the cooking while the little ones decorate the dining table with flowers they picked up either in the garden or last night's Eucharist. They also look forward to their father blessing them at the table.

      As for the bedroom, we're still working on getting our kids to stop barging into our bedrooms. They were so used to that, and so we keep reming them to knock at the door when mommy and daddy is in the bedroom. Because the marriage bed is considered an altar, we keep it clean at all times. Before, it was full of clutter with clothes and toys on the floor.

  4. Great article, I am curious what other resources can be found in the subject of the Three Alters. Thank you.