I: The Altar
Q: Why do many Lutheran churches have people bow toward the altar, when they pass it or as they enter their pew?
A: From the very beginnings of the Church, the significance of the altar has influenced the ceremonial actions of the Liturgy. In the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ is depicted as the High Priest who is also the living altar of the heavenly temple. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus appears as the Lamb who has been sacrificed and whose offering is taken by the holy angel to the altar in heaven. From these and other passages in the Old and New Testaments the Church came to say that Jesus Christ was the victim, priest, and altar of His own sacrifice - and that the altar in the church building represented both the throne of God in heaven and the person of Christ.
The fundamental importance of the altar, though, derives from its place in our celebration of the Eucharist. When He instituted, in the form of a meal, the memorial of the sacrificial offering, He was about to offer the Father on the altar of the cross, Jesus sanctified, or made holy, the table where the community of the faithful would gather to celebrate that meal. Thus, our altar is the place on which, in a mysterious way, the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated throughout the ages until Christ comes again, and it is the holy table at which the children of God gather to give Him praise and receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
Since God comes to us with His very body and blood at the altar, it is fitting that we act appropriately when in its presence. We express our reverence in a variety of ways, in actions as well as words, one of which is bowing. Bowing is a way of showing our adoration and respect for the God who comes among us; it is a way of giving flesh to our faith; of expressing and reinforcing our reverence for the holiness of the God made present on and at the altar.
Adapted from About Being Lutheran © Lutheran Liturgical Renewal 1991. Used by permission.