Why Priest Kiss the Altar at the Beginning of a Mass
The Roman Catholic Mass begins with the procession. Each member genuflects at the altar, and the priest and deacon kiss the altar in an act of veneration.
The Altar of Sacrifice
In Roman Catholicism, the altar is both the sacrificial table and the place where the paschal feast takes place. During the first centuries of Christianity, when the Eucharist was still illegal, Christian altars were constructed from wood and often resembled ordinary house tables. This practise continued until the Middle Ages when, in 517, the provincial council of Epeaune in France decreed that altars should be made of stone to signify “Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone" of Catholicism. Venerated relics were conserved in cavities in the stone altars of newly built Basilicas, which were then placed directly above the tomb of a martyr to evoke those times during the persecutions of the church when martyrs’ tombs were utilized as places of Eucharistic celebration.
In Remembrance of Me.
The Eucharist is housed in the Tabernacle, which is present in the sanctuary. It is customary to genuflect in reverence to the Tabernacle when entering the sanctuary. According to Catholicism, Jesus Christ established the Holy Eucharist prior to his death on the cross by informing the twelve apostles to “do this in remembrance of me." The Eucharist involves the Roman Catholic concept of Transubstantiation: the bread and wine take on the substance of Christ, maintaining their literal taste and appearance while becoming, in essence, his body and blood.
An act of veneration, the holy kiss, or kiss of peace, occurs three times during the Mass, the first of which is at the altar. Like the cross on Calvary, where the Bible says that Jesus Christ sacrificed his life and was crucified, the altar is considered a place of sacrifice. In kissing the altar, the priest symbolizes the bond between Christ and his church; acknowledges the sacrifices of those martyrs (relics) who gave their life for the furtherance of the faith; and, when performed with the deacon, is an extension of peace to the community. The final kiss is also given at the altar to venerate the table as a symbol of Christ, as well as being the place where the faithful offer their bodies as a “living sacrifice.”
The Living Word.
The next holy kiss seals and venerates the Word after the liturgy of the Word at the Ambo. The Ambo is a lectern where the deacon carries the Gospel book. The Gospel is seen to have within it the power to transform the lives of the faithful. According to Catholicism, just as Christ became the living Word, so the faithful should seek to do the same.