Much of masonic Lore and ritual is based on the Old Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible, not least of course the building of King Solomon’s Temple at Jerusalem. But there is another legend which is important to Freemasons – that of Abraham preparing to offer up his own
son Isaac as a burnt sacrifice when ordered to do so by God. As we see from the above fragment of an old masonic catechetical lecture, our lodges stand on holy ground. This holy ground contains an altar.
In the legend referred to above, as told in the Book of Genesis, Abraham went to the place of which God had told him and built an altar there for the sacrifice. We know that God finally prevented Abraham from sacrificing his own son, but the erection of an altar has significance for us far beyond the biblical legend. In antiquity an altar was a structure upon which offerings such as sacrifices were made.
Altars probably originated when certain localities such as a tree, a spring or a rock came to be regarded as holy or as inhabited by spirits or gods, whose intervention could be solicited by the worshipper. It was also on an altar that the practice grew up of burning incense, a practice continued today in many masonic rituals.
In some religions, altars represent the occasion and the place where we have had a personal encounter with God. Freemasonry gives substance to this by placing the Great Lights on it – the Volume of the Sacred Lore, namely God’s revealed will to mankind, and the two most compelling masonic implements, the Square teaching rectitude and the Compasses teaching the extent and the bounds of our action and of our existence.
Traditionally of course the altar in a lodge is placed in front of the Master’s pedestal, about one or two metres to the west, depending on the size of the Temple, standing either on the square pavement or between that and the Master. In many masonic rituals the altar is incensed at the opening of the lodge, it being the sacred space where candidates pledge their solemn obligations.
But before the candidate approaches the altar, he hears the Senior Warden say:
“Bro. Junior Deacon, it is the Right Worshipful Master’s command that you instruct the candidate to advance to the East – the place of light – by the proper steps.“
Now the candidate, being blindfolded, has no idea where, if at all, there is light in the lodge, but now he has been told he can expect at least material light on his onward journey, and he or she may have already sensed that the expected light will be more than merely material. And now you can see that the altar is placed in that very situation where the sun rises. It also consists of specific items meant to invite positive energy into your life. It is indeed a sacred space that serves as a spiritual center where you can focus on being your highest Self.
To find out more please see ‘Freemasonry for the Heart and Mind: Sketches from an Esoteric Notebook‘