Christ's Faithful People
|THE altar is covered with a linen cloth. The corporal,
which, as representing the winding-sheet of Christ's body, is laid under Host and Chalice,
is made of linen. The priest's alb, which is always worn during divine service, is of
white linen. When the Holy Bread is being distributed a linen cloth covers the Lord's
Good linen, strong-fibered and close-woven, is a costly material. It has the lustre of fresh snow. Once when I came upon a patch of new-fallen snow lying among dark spruce trees, I turned aside and took my heavy boots another way, out of sheer respect. It is a sign of respect that we cover holy things with linen.
When the Holy Sacrifice is offered, the uppermost covering of the altar must be of fair linen. The high altar, in the Holy of Holies, represents, we said, the altar in man's soul. But it more than represents it. The two altars are inseparable. They are really, though mysteriously, the same altar. The authentic and perfect altar in which Christ's sacrifice is offered is the union of them both.
It is for this reason that linen makes its strong appeal. We have a sense that it corresponds to something within ourselves. It seems to make some claim upon us in the nature of a wish or a reproach. Only from a clean heart comes a right sacrifice. In the same measure as the heart is pure is the sacrifice pleasing to God.
Linen has much to teach us about the nature of purity. Genuine linen is an exquisite material. Purity is not the product of rude force or found in company with harsh manners. Its strength comes of its fineness. Its orderliness is gentle. But linen is also extremely strong; it is no gossamer web to flutter in every breeze. In real purity there is nothing of that sickly quality that flies from life and wraps itself up in unreal dreams and ideals out of its reach. It has the red cheeks of the man who is glad to be alive and the firm grip of the hard fighter.
And if we look a little further, it has still one thing more to say. It was not always so clean and fine as it now is. It was to begin with, unsightly stuff. In order to attain its present fragrant freshness it had to be washed and rewashed, and then bleached. Purity is not come by at the first. It is indeed a grace, and there are people who have so carried the gift in their souls that their whole nature has the strength and freshness of unsullied purity. But they are the exception. What is commonly called purity is no more than the doubtful good of not having been shaken by the storms of life. Purity, that is really such, is attained not at the beginning but at the end of life, and achieved only by long and courageous effort.
So the linen on the altar in its fine white durableness stands to us both for exquisite cleanness of heart and for fibrous strength.
There is a place in Saint John's Apocalypse where mention is made of "a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne clothed in white robes." And a voice asked, "Who are these and whence come they?" And the answer is given: "These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night." "Let me be clothed, O Lord, in a white garment," is the priest's prayer while he is putting on the alb for the Holy Sacrifice.