In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus could have just said the word and the lepers would have been healed. Rather he told them to go to the pool and wash. In that washing, with skin coming in contact with cold, wet fluidity, the leprosy disappeared.
Our liturgy and sacramental life are also doused in the cold, wet fluidity of grace; at baptism, from our holy water fonts, during sprinkling rites, as the priest washes his hands at the altar and when the vessels are purified after the Communion rite. Water has a place in our liturgical ritual and an important role behind the scenes as well.
I want to take you for a visit into the world of “church linen laundry.” Nothing that supports the liturgy is trivial. We do not use “stuff.” We use vestments and vessels, paraments and linens. Each time you come to Mass, these are clean, fresh, inviting, worthy.
The priest wears a chasuble with an alb. Most chasubles are dry clean only, while the fabric of albs is made to withstand machine washing. Many priests also wear an amice. It is a rectangular piece of fabric with two very long ties attached. It wraps over the priest’s neck and shoulders. While it does have a symbolic meaning, practically, the amice keeps the priests neck areas from staining the chasuble. It is machine washable, but woe to the laundress who forgets to bind the cords! Once, without thinking, I tossed six amices into the wash machine. When the cycle ended, I found a tangled, ball of fabric and string the size of Lambeau Field. It took days to untangle.
The liturgical linens consist of the altar cloths, corporals, purificators and finger towels. The ornateness of your parish altar cloths determines if volunteers are laundering them or if they are sent to professional cleaners. Many altar cloths that have older vintage lace simply cannot stand up to today’s wash machines. They need special care.
The corporals are large squares of linen that are placed on the altar cloth. Their purpose is to serve as a resting place for the eucharistic elements and to capture any of the eucharistic elements that might drop or be dripped. The purificators are used to wipe the cups after each recipient has received the precious blood. Because both the corporal and purificators come in contact with the actual body and blood of Christ, they are accorded a different dignity of care.
The church outlines certain procedures for washing these items. They are to be soaked in a bowl of ice water. This helps remove residual stains. If this step is being done at church, the water is then poured down the sacrarium, the special sink in the sacristy that is piped directly into the ground. If it is being done at one’s home, the water is to be returned to the earth by pouring it in an out of the way place outdoors. From that point on, the linens are laundered as usual. Purificators are usually ironed while still damp since this makes for a nice, crisp look. The person doing the ironing, however, will be treated to their own mini sauna in the process. Each purificator is then folded in a prescribed manner and returned to the church for use the next week.
When church linens become too soiled or worn to be of dignified service, they are burned.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.