Outrage at the Altar

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

It was the mid 1600s.  It was a country church, somewhere near Cambridge. The service was just beginning. The priest was leading the Collect for Purity.  A parishioner, a prominent local farmer and military man, raised his head. His eyes landed on the altar table. “Who has done this?” he asked, interrupting the prayer.  “Answer me, who has done this?” He pointed to the candles, the linen cloths, the finery on the altar table.  The priest stopped, red-faced he fumbled an answer, saying that the items on the altar table had been mandated by the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Charles the First himself.  The parishioner was Oliver Cromwell and a Puritan-sympathizer, that sect in the Church that called for greater simplicity in worship and the removal of all things “Roman.”  Cromwell would soon play a role in beheading  the Archbishop of Canterbury, ridding England of  bishops and drastically reforming the Church… for a season.  

Cromwell stood up. He gestured to the items on the altar.   This is a “Protestant Church,” he said, his voice ominously quiet. His voice rose.  “The house of God is being turned into a Roman temple!” He moved closer to the altar.  “Has our King forgotten the Reformation?” he shouted.  His arm swept the candle-sticks and everything else onto the stone floor.  “Did the Lord not say ‘Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image?’” he thundered.  So began the 1970 movie, “Cromwell,” that starred Richard Harris as Oliver Cromwell and Alec Guinness as Charles the First.

Asking “Who has done this?” might be a fair question. After all, in the mid 16th century the Church of England broke with the Roman Catholic Church,  turning us into a Protestant Church  –  sort of.  Numerous monarchs and archbishops spent the next two centuries purging and even legislating Catholic ritualism out of the Church – to some extent.   The fact is, a degree of Catholic ritualism and finery has stayed with us.   Asking “Who has done this?” might not be as good a question as asking, “Why?”  Why was a degree of Catholic ritualism and finery restored to our Anglican altar tables?  In a word – symbolism.  

Aside from the candlesticks and the gold cross which angered Harris’ character in the opening scenes of “Cromwell,” let’s consider what we tend to see on the altar table at a service of Holy Eucharist.  We see the chalice covered by a coloured cloth, what someone has likened to a small “tent.”  Why that’s there, and what lies beneath the coloured cloth has a rich history.  And the Puritan’s aversion to all things “Catholic” might have been tempered if they understood the symbolism of what he was looking at.  In fairness, it’s unlikely most 17th clergy understood the symbolism of the items on the altar either. 

Consider the use of linen. From at least the 4th century on the Church has covered the altar table with linen.  Linen was chosen because that was the material used to make the curtain walls of the Tabernacle for the children of Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 26:1, 31, 36) as well as the clothes and turban of the High Priest.   Linen cloths on the altar table symbolically connected the worshipper to the worship life of our  ancient Israelite ancestors. 

Linen seems to be everywhere on the altar table.  Underneath that coloured cloth – called the “veil” – is the chalice (the cup) and the paten (the plate) that will hold the bread and wine, the symbols of Christ’s presence. Look again.  Underneath the chalice sits on a square of linen cloth called the “corporal” from the word corpus meaning “body.”  Above the chalice sits the paten, with the “priest’s host,” the symbol of the body of Christ.  Above that is a rigid linen square – again there’s linen – called the “pall” from the Latin pallium meaning “covering,” and we get our word “pall,” meaning the covering of a coffin from that.  The pall has a practical role: the celebrant covers the cup to make certain dust and insects don’t fall in!

Although the corporal and the pall are two separate linen items. In some earlier Church tradition, and in some Anglican churches today, there weren’t two items, but rather one.  It was a very large linen corporal, which  would fold over the chalice and paten like a shroud over a body.  No matter which way it’s done, the presence of linen both under and on top of the chalice and paten is just that – a symbol of the linen burial wrappings of Jesus (Matt 27:59).

The importance of linen, as opposed to silk, cotton or polyester, is attested to by the firm rejection of alternative fabrics throughout liturgical Church History.  Linen is a Biblical symbol. Other materials aren’t.  Various popes enforced this. In our Anglican tradition, various local councils and synods were insisting on linen as early as the 15th century.  Part of an archdeacon’s job description included making only linen was used on the parish altars.

What none of us sees however, is the base cloth that covers many of our altar tables. The first layer was what is called a  cere cloth.  It was, and is, treated with bees-wax to prevent wine spills from soaking through onto the altar table.  Why would the cloth be treated with bees-wax, and why are some churches insistent that only bees-wax candles be used around the altar?  In Christian symbolism, the bee was a model of the Christian servant: it labored for others,  its labours yielded sweetness, it single-mindedly served its lord (the queen bee), and it would give up its life to protect the colony. The fruitful, busy bee was the perfect natural example of a faithful servant of God, clergy or lay.  Bees wax thus became quite significant. 

 

Returning to the altar cloths, the top-most cloth of the altar cloths is the  “fair-linen,” a long white linen that drapes down the sides of the altar table about a foot and a half.  Look closely.  On many there are five small crosses were embroidered symbolizing the five wounds of Christ… hands, feet and side.

But the most Roman Catholic-looking item of all, is of course the covered chalice.  Here, the language becomes very significant.  First we see a coloured “veil,” the cloth that makes up the “tent.”  Again, there is an Old Testament and New Testament significance.  Going back to Exodus 40:21 we learn that the most sacred place in the Tabernacle was the Holy of Holies, where the high priest had an exclusive audience with God once a year to offer a sacrifice for his sins and the sins of the people. The Holy of Holies was separated from the other worship space by a floor to ceiling curtain, or “veil.” The message was plain: beyond this point God communed solely with the High Priest. 

A similar but larger veil was in place in the Jerusalem Temple. It was formidable, nearly 60 feet high and 4 inches thick.  When Jesus died on the cross, gave up His spirit, and the curtain in the Temple separating the Holy of Holies from other worshippers ripped open from the top to bottom (Mark 15:28). A clear message was sent. Through our crucified and risen Lord all believers in him would have access to God.   This is why the veil on our Anglican altar table is removed to prepare the chalice and paten for communion and remains off for the duration of the Eucharist.  It’s a reminder that because the veil in the Temple was been torn down, we have direct access to God through Christ, our Great High Priest.

One other symbolic item remains. Immediately over the top of the chalice is a small white linen cloth. It is folded in three – which is significant. The “purificator” as it is called, is practical. It is used to wipe the rim of the chalice during Communion. But the fact that it is where it is adds symbolism to its otherwise humble use. Like the bread and the wine, the purificator links us to Christ, who came to Earth as a servant, and who washed the feet of his disciples.  On the top of it all is the large square “burse” or purse in the same colour as the veil. It’s purely functional and holds an extra corporal or purificator as needed.  

Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans of the mid-17th century Anglican Church desperately wanted a Bible-based Church, eventually chucking out even the Book of Common Prayer.  Their fears about the encroachment of Catholicism in our worship, caused them to strip away a lot of powerful, often Biblically-based symbols.  Candles, table linens, the corporal, the veil, the purificator were among them. But before that happened, what was needed from those in ecclesiastical authority was a teaching.  Why do we use the symbols we do? Instead they issued draconian mandates imposing them.  Cromwell, the Puritans, and Anglicans cut from the same cloth always had  trouble with mandated and unexplained rituals.  

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