The high altar does not stand alone like the front altar. Most noticeably, it has what is known as the reredos. They are decorations that extend from the back of the altar to help focus on the sacrifice on the altar, the same sacrifice that lives in the tabernacle. Ours here at St Joseph is very rich in symbolism and teaching moments, more than in most I find.
First, the gold reminds us of the majesty of God. It is most evidently a golden palace. How many grandparents take their grandchildren to church here and the kids get it? It’s a great castle! Yes, a great golden castle for Jesus. That is truly where He lives, at the very center, the tabernacle. And in this majestic castle, we are invited to live, too, because in this castle there are many rooms for us (John 14:2-3). Jesus has prepared a room for you. Which room is it? Are you like the foundation or pillars and sturdy? Are you close to the heart of God, in the center? Has God risen you to lofty heights? Or are you by the arms of the reredos, always in His embrace? Or are you by the slain lamb from the long suffering of this life? …
The slain lamb is a rich symbol. Leviticus calls for a sacrificial lamb for nearly every kind of sacrifice there is. But the sacrifice of the lamb begins with the one that saves the first-born son from death. Jesus is that very sacrifice that saves us from eternal death. In baptism, you can say we are as if we were the firstborn. In fact, the Father adopting us required the real firstborn Son, Jesus, to die. That left us as heirs to the firstborn rights. The heavenly Father coddles us to His bosom and treats us as His only begotten. Such is His tender love for us. To top that off, Jesus agrees to this! He wants us to share in His total inheritance. Being adopted is one thing, but to share with us His first-born right is so much more! Only the firstborn has full access to the father’s things and can distribute them after the father is gone. Only the firstborn has dibs on everything (Gen 27). Esau gave his firstborn the right for a bowl of soup and gets tricked out of it when it comes time to obtain it. Jesus gives it freely to purchase souls from eternal damnation.
Jesus is the lamb who is slain (John 1:20), but this is for the salvation of our eternal souls. Jesus’ suffering is the foundation of our hope, hence the image of the lamb is at the foundation of the altar. He is the true and eternal lamb of God. Those who suffer with Him, then, are very precious to Him. He knows what it is like to suffer for souls. When we choose to offer our suffering for souls, he strengthens us with His special embrace and has a special place in heaven for them. The suffering of such souls is greatly rewarded in heaven. It is His promise (Mt 5:11-12).
What will heaven really be like? No one image can come close, but they all reflect a reality that we will truly experience. I hope for that promise. If that image comes short, how much greater is the reality going to be? Can’t wait to see!