Since we’re now in the Holiest week of the Christian calendar, we thought it would be interesting to discuss the use of linen in altar cloths.
The History of Communion Linens
The use of communion cloths dates back to the early centuries of the church. By the fourth century, every Christian knew that during the celebration of Holy Communion, the altar was to be covered with a white linen cloth. Symbolically, the cloths represent the the purity and the devotion of God’s Faithful. It further signified the linens in which the body of Christ was wrapped when he was laid in the tomb.
The linen traditionally required for service at Holy Communion includes an Altar Fair Linen cloth; a Corporal; Chalice Veil; Pall; Purificator; Lavabo Towel; and Credence table cloth. Many of the clergy prefer their altar linens worked entirely in white embroidery. When color is accepted, red, blue, green, gold, or gray, either singularly or in combination with white embroidery, may add to the beauty of the Altar.
* History of Linens from CommunionLinens.com
* Photos and captions from Altar Linens.
The Communion Linens
Fair Linens (Altar Cloths)
Fair linens are custom-made linens that cover the main altar and are embroidered with five crosses, one in each corner of the mensa and a centered embroidery. The five crosses on the fair linen are meant to depict the five wounds of Christ. A fair linen usually includes a drop, which is completely at the discretion of the altar guild. Drops on a fair linen vary enormously, but a short drop ( 4″ or less ) on a fair linen is discouraged, as the drop is not sufficient to hang properly. Longer drops on fair linens are encouraged, as they are visually more pleasing. Fair linens often include a lace trim on the drop. Fair linens should be stored rolled when not in use. The fair linen represents the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped for burial.
The corporal is a large square linen usually 18″ x 18″, and is folded in thirds and placed underneath the chalice. The corporal is used to catch any crumbs from the host during consecration. Corporals are embroidered with one center front cross. The corporal is so named because the word comes from the Latin “corpus,” meaning body.
Credence linens are custom-made linens that cover the credence table, which holds the bread and wine before consecration. The credence table is used at the offertory. Credence linens are embroidered with one center cross.
Communion Veils are normally square and vary in size according to the number of communicants. Communion Veils are used to cover all of the elements during the liturgy. Communion Veils are removed before consecration.
The standard size of a Lavabo Towel is 17″ x 11″ and is used by the priest to dry his hands before the consecration of the host at the communion service. Lavabo Towels are embroidered with a cross on the center front of the towel. The Lavabo Towel is held by the acolyte during the service. The term “lavabo towel” comes from the Latin root, “lava,” meaning to wash.
Purificator The size of Purificators are generally 12″ x 12″ with an embroidered center cross. Purificators are folded in thirds and placed over the chalice and under the paten. These small linens are the most frequently laundered of all the linens in liturgical use. Purificators are used to clean out the chalice and paten after communion. Purificators are washed preferably by hand in the Sacristry following the service.