Morning light has been slowly growing from thin to bright for an hour or so. Time to wake the children.
"Come on children! Let's hurry down stairs. Daddy wants to read bible before breakfast."
One by one they come, some dragging, some bounding, like the morning's birds to a bird bath.
"Mama, you said I could light the candle," whispers a small one.
"Ok, but let me help you," says Mama.
Carefully, mother's hand clasps little one's hand as the candle is lit and the family is finally all assembled. The little altar shelf displays a white pillar candle - gleaming in its whiteness, a simple wooden cross, a displayed bible, a small icon of Christ Pantokrator, a brass candle snuffer, and an embossed metal storage box. The ribbons adorning the little altar space have recently been changed from purple to white for Easter season.
Baby toddles from person to person for good morning kisses as Daddy starts the morning's reading.
Later, the candle is snuffed and all disperse to chores, breakfast, and the office. The day has begun.
So, what is a Family Altar?
A Family Altar is, first of all, anything you like it to be. Simple or elaborate. Private or Communal. Formal or Relaxed. Above all it is a visual reminder (for your own family) of the importance of the religious life within the family. It can be a place family members gather for bible reading or devotional time alone or as a group. It can be a place to display bits of God's creation you find on your nature walks. It can be a place for your children to practice and learn about the liturgical life.
And how do make one?
Items you’ll need:
A Free-standing cross (purchased or homemade)
A pillar candle (white or red to represent the Holy Spirit)
A shelf or small table (or portion of a table)
Other items you might like to add:
-:- Lengths of ribbon in liturgical colors (red, white, green, purple, black, gold) to lay across altar area, drape around the cross, or otherwise display on the altar. Alternately, you could use pieces of fabric in liturgical colors as a ‘table cloth’ under your altar area.
-:- Candle snuffer – little kids enjoy snuffing out the candle.
-:- Small icon of Jesus – these can be found online and printed on cardstock or laminated or glued onto small wooden plaques (found at most craft stores in the wood craft section). Generally, there are no worries about copyright if you are not selling them to others.
-:- A decorative box to keep the supplies handy, but out of sight.
-:- Bottle of Holy Water (see your priest)
Where to find the items:
Crosses can be found at Hobby Lobby (or other craft store) or a Christian book store. As a family, you might enjoy making yours. Candles and ribbon can be found at any craft store. The icons can be found by doing a Google Image Search on “icon of Jesus”.
Where to place your altar
It doesn’t matter where you locate your family altar, but someplace that the entire family can gather is ideal. If it has the possibility for also being a private prayer place, that might be nice, too. (An example might be a shelf on a bookcase in a less-frequently used room.)
Traditionally, altars are set up in churches so that the congregation is facing East. You can try to do this in your home, too, but it certainly is not necessary.
If you don’t have a place you can keep the altar our permanently, you could keep the pieces in a lovely box and make the set up part of your family prayer time. Each family member could have a different responsibility.
How to set up your altar
Facing the altar: Place your cross on the right and the candle on the left. If you have book holder, place this in the middle and place your bible there. Above that (or if no book holder, in the middle) place the icon. You can tape or tack this in place on the wall, if you want. If you are using the ribbon, decide how you want to display that and choose the appropriate seasonal color. Lent: purple, Good Friday: black, Easter: white or gold, Pentecost: red, Ordinary Time: green, Advent: purple, Christmas: white
How to use the altar
Use it as a focus for family or individual prayer. Allow a child to light and/or snuff the candle at the beginning and end of prayer or bible reading. On feast days, let the children help you lay out the seasonal-colored ribbon or cloth.
You might like to add icons for various days of the church year (Easter, Ascension, saints' days, etc). Icons for these can be found by doing a Google image search. Again, no worries about copyright as long as you are not selling the icons. But do be mindful if the website specifically prohibits copying of pictures. You can display them by hanging on the wall or back of shelf or by using a small display easel.
I know many of my readers probably do something similar. If your family uses some sort of family altar, would you leave a comment and share any ideas or suggestions you have?