I remember “the good china.” When my mother brought out the good china I knew some special feast was going to take place. She also had the good table cloth and the good silverware. Having only been used for celebrations like Christmas or Thanksgiving, these table pieces were passed down to me in pristine condition. While the good china still spends its time in a cupboard, I do enjoy the good silver in my daily use.
All of the readings for this Sunday speak of marvelous banquets, making it easy for us to remember those beautiful tables in our homes with glistening utensils and groaning under the weight of opulence. The altars on our churches also bear a great weight, that of the mystery of Christ, and function both as altars of sacrifice and tables of holy food.
Take note of the altar in your church and see how carefully it is dressed to serve as the banquet table. The first cloth you may notice will be one that is the color of the liturgical season. This cloth may have an overhang on the front or sides. It might also be embellished with a design or Christ’s symbols. The use of a colored cloth is optional; however, regardless of what kind of altar coverings are used, you will always see at least one layer of white fabric on the altar as well.
In addition to the cloths, only those things that are needed for the celebration of Mass are placed on the altar. It is not appropriate to have flowers, photographs, the collection basket or non-liturgical objects on the altar.
You will see altar candles. The candles, made with a high percentage of beeswax, may be placed on the altar or near the altar. The number of candles used gives you an indication of the importance of the feast. At a daily Mass, two candles are used. On Sundays, four candles or even six candles may be used, especially for feasts like Christmas, Easter or a holy day of obligation. A provision is given that when the bishop presides at a liturgy at your parish there are to be seven candles.
A crucifix must be near the altar and visible to the people. It is also permitted to have a small crucifix on the altar itself, with the corpus, facing toward the priest.
During the entrance procession, the Book of the Gospels will be brought forward and be placed on the altar.
The remainder of setting the altar takes place after the universal prayers. This time is known as the presentation of the gifts and preparation of the altar. First the corporal, a large square of starched linen is unfolded and placed in the lower center of the altar. The chalice and eucharistic elements will be placed on the corporal. Its purpose is to contain any stray particles of consecrated host. The altar table will also be set with the Roman Missal; a paten, which is a small round gold or silver plate to hold a larger host; a chalice, made of precious metal; a pall, which is a stiff piece of fabric, to cover the chalice preventing dust or itinerant insects from settling in the chalice; a vessel holding the smaller hosts; and Communion cups with purificators, the cloths used to wipe each individual cup during the time of Communion.
And with that, the “good china” has been brought out, all is now ready, let the divine banquet begin.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.