The View from the Sacristy: Linens
April 9, 2014 § 1 Comment
There are many mysteries in the Church, in the history of any congregation, especially one like Saint Luke’s. This week, I want to talk about one of those mysteries—of actions done by a dedicated few, in virtual solitude, in secret whilst the congregation worships. I want to talk about ironing communion linens. Few in fact do see this done, maybe a few early arriving acolytes at the 11:15 service, but by and large two altar guild members wash and iron communion linens every Sunday morning during the 9:15 service. It is a devotion in a way—a quiet time where one irons wet cotton linens and folds them so they may be used throughout the week.
I will next mention that I hate ironing, at least my own clothes, though I don’t mind the effect if someone else does it. For some unknown reason, however, I find myself drawn to the ironing of the communion linens. It is relaxing and, dare I say it, enjoyable and even prayerful. Some refer to it as “doing Jesus’ laundry”, which is cute in its own way, but I see it as bringing a little order to a disordered world. I have little ability to do that in my own life, most of us may be at the whims of circumstance and job, family or obligations, disability or financial circumstance—we live in a disordered world. Yet, while I am ironing the linens, I am often chatting with whichever Altar Guild member is with me, and we iron out what has gone on in the past few weeks since we last saw each other, what issues we have that need prayers, what our plans are for the future. It may not be direct prayer to God in the “traditional” sense, but it is quite cathartic.
It means even more when one contemplates the various types of linens that we have, and that throughout the ages, the Church has used similar clothes in their worship—with some type of altar guild member in the background washing, ironing, and folding. For me it is a tie to an ongoing service and dedication, to what my mother and grandmother used to do, and back over the ages.
On our altar at St. Luke’s we have a fair linen. It is a huge white cotton cloth that covers the top of the altar, on top of any frontal we may be using. It is representative of the burial shroud of Jesus, despite feeling like a table cloth. In the center is an embroidered cross. Some also have crosses at each corner. Traditionally, there would be other clothes under the fair linen, one called a cere cloth, which has a wax coating to prevent spillage, and another called the plain linen to prevent dents in the waxed cloth—at St. Luke’s those clothes are usually integrated into the frontal (sans the wax cloth), and it also helps hold the frontal onto the altar. We leave the fair linen on throughout the year, changing it when it is dirty, and of course when the clergy strip the altar. When the altar is not being used, we cover it with blue coverlet that one can often see folded under the credence during services. It is inspiring to me to think of the cloth as not only a witness throughout the year of the many services, but throughout the decades. When one takes it off to wash it, one can smell the incense in it—infused as if smoked in prayer.
The majority of the linens for communion reside at the credence-table during a service. We cover the table with a credence cloth and is often embroidered with a cross in the center. We place the chalices, lavabo, and reserve sacrament vessels on this cloth before the service.
Each chalice being used has a little napkin called a purificator. It is square in shape and is folded into threes twice (if you unfold it, it looks like a tic-tac-toe). In the center is a cross. It is used to wipe the chalice after someone drinks from it, as well as to absorb any drops of consecrated wine when ablutions are done. If a chalice has a lot of consecrated wine in it at the end of a service, it is usually covered in an opened purificator.
On two of the chalices being used, we have also a pall and plate (called paten). A pall is a hardened square piece, often with cardboard, or in our case plexi-glass, covered in linen. In the center is a cross. In practical sense, it is used to cover a chalice with wine to prevent things from falling into it. It makes a lot more sense if you think about an old church with a bird living in the rafters. It also functions to help give shape to the veil of a dressed chalice.
Each service we have a dressed chalice—or one that has not only the purificator and pall, but also a veil that matches the frontal on the altar. It too is square, and hangs over the entire chalice, except for the back (so one can grab the chalice). In some parishes, a paten with the host that is broken are pre-set under the veil. At St. Luke’s we place the host with the rest of the individual hosts in a paten that is brought up at the offertory. Also in some parishes, the dressed chalice sits in the center of the altar as the service begins. In others, like Saint Luke’s, the dressed chalice is the first item brought to the altar when the offertory music begins.
On the top of the veil, is an object called a burse. A burse is made up of two square cards that are hinged on one side to each other. The burse matches the colors of the veil and frontal. Inside the burse we put additional altar linens, specifically two more purificators (in case there is an accident), and another cloth called the corporal.
A corporal (from the Latin corpus, or body) is a large square cloth that resembles a placemat. It is folded in a similar manner to the purificator (nine squares). When used, it is unfolded with an embroidered cross in the center of one side. The cross is placed closest to the priest. The consecration of the elements happens on the corporal. After communion, the corporal is one of the few altar linens that is ceremonially folded back up, catching any consecrated crumbs inside so they do not fall to the floor. Then it is placed with the rest of the chalice clothes to be cleaned by the Altar Guild later.
The last altar cloth that we used is a lavabo towel, from the Latin for “I shall wash” from Psalm 26. It is a towel that is rectangular in shape and is folded in half length-side, and then in thirds. It often has a cross or shell embroidered in the bottom center of one side. After the incensing of the altar, the priest gets their hands washed, and uses the lavabo towel to dry them. We also usually bring some to the baptismal font to help dry the forehead of the newly baptized in case it gets really wet.
Looking at this, it may seem like a lot of specialized clothes—though even in our own mundane homes do we not use tablecloths, placemats, and napkins? There is function and spirituality in the altar clothes. And there is a lot of history and tradition in their use. One of the earliest references to the use of the fair linen is from 375 CE by a Saint Optatus who is attributed to say “What Christian is unaware that in celebrating the Sacred Mysteries the wood [of the altar] is covered with a linen cloth?” And that brings me back to the beginning—wherein for me the ironing and folding of these clothes brings me into a spiritual mindset and connection with the many altar guild members throughout the ages.
– Chap Day