At the start of the sermon, the altar is bare. With the help of the Eucharistic Minister, the altar is clothed and set as each item is named.
Each Sunday, as we gather for worship, the most prominent object before us is this table. We usually refer to it as the altar. When we call it this, we connect it to Jesus’s sacrifice of his life for us. The word “altar” connects this table to Jesus’s words in today’s gospel, “this is my flesh that I will give for the life of the world.” Altar points back in time and makes the liturgy we offer here a thanksgiving for that sacrifice. We remember something God did for us and claim the Church’s memory of it as our own story.
The other common term for this table is holy table. This term is part of our Protestant heritage and points to the great feast of all the saints, standing round the throne of God, at the end of time. The term “holy table” connects to another phrase in today’s gospel, when Jesus says of his disciples, “I will raise them up on the last day.” Holy table points to the future, and makes the Church’s hope our hope.
We place on this table a beautiful long linen, called the “fair linen.” It is white, as a sign of purity and celebration. White reminds us of our baptism and marks the liturgy offered here as a festival of rejoicing.
We add to the altar two candles. These point to Christ, who is the light of the world.
Next comes the altar book and a stand for it to sit on. This book is a resource for presider, with all the words and the music one needs to lead the prayers offered while standing here. It is a large, beautiful book on purpose, to show our respect and joy for the holy and mysterious grace that brings us to this place.
Today we add flowers to the altar. These were selected by a member of the congregation and placed as a sign of her thankfulness of God’s love for us. Flowers here also bring something more of the goodness of creation to this holy table, reminding us that all God has made is blessing.
Next we bring to the table a chalice. This is a large, stable cup for holding the wine. While we pray the Great Thanksgiving, we have just one cup on the altar, a symbol of our unity and equality before God. We could use any cup, but we choose to use a beautiful silver cup as yet another sign of our awe and thankfulness for the gift of Christ’s love.
On top of the chalice is a purificator, from “purify,” which is used to clean the lip of the chalice after each person receives the blessed wine.
Next we have two cruets – one for wine, which is a symbol of both suffering and celebration – and one for water, the most basic necessity of all life. From the earliest days of the church, a little water was added to the wine before it was blessed and shared. This probably began as a practical custom, to improve the quality of the wine, but it has accrued meaning as it has been passed down. Now it might be understood as a sign of the union of Christ and the church, a sign of the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’s side on the cross, or a meditation on the union of Christ’s divine and human natures.
The presider next spreads out a large square of linen called a corporal. From corpus, or body, the corporal is laid upside-down on the altar, so that when the rite is finished, it can be folded up in a way that catches the “crumbs” of the body and allows us to dispose of them reverently.
Next comes a paten, or plate, which, like the chalice, is large and beautiful to show our thankfulness and joy at being called to this feast.
All of these items are part of a beautiful tradition. All add to the story and prayer enacted here. But the whole thing is empty without the final thing: the bread.
It’s all about the bread. Jesus talks a lot about bread. Bread is mentioned 77 times in the New Testament, and most of those mentions are words spoken by Jesus or refer to Jesus’s encounters with bread. Jesus eats a lot of bread: at the wedding in Cana, with Simon the Pharisee, at the home of Mary and Martha, at the Passover, after his Resurrection on the road to Emmaus. And bread is a central part of how Jesus explains who he is.
Jesus commands us to break bread in remembrance of him: in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and I Corinthians, we hear the words of Jesus on the night before he died, saying, “this bread is my body,” and telling his disciples to continue taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing bread in remembrance of him. Some say the Episcopal Church not “bible-based.” But I say that every week, we bring to life this central scriptural command faithfully. We base our worship life squarely in the words and actions of our Lord.
In John, no Last Supper is recorded. Rather, we have these words from Jesus: I am the bread of life. The bread that I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. These words, too, point us to the altar and are brought to life here each week.
Isn’t it amazing that the central command of our incarnate Lord is this: Come and eat! Like Lady Wisdom whom we heard from in th reading from Proverbs, Jesus tells us, “turn in here. I want to give you life; I want you to know you need not fear anything, not even death; I want you to know that you exist not only in a particular time and space that you can mark on the google calendar on your little iPhone, but as part of an eternal ordering that extends through God’s time and past your time on earth.”
Come and eat. Ingest this truth. I am Truth. Let me become part of the fabric of your being, you beloved child! Each week, after saying the words of institution, I lift the bread, and we ring the bells. These actions arose from some medieval theology we no longer espouse, but here’s why I keep doing them: They allow me to show in my body my amazement at the mysterious grace of God. In lifting the bread so even those in the back row can see it, I affirm that it’s not just for me, but for all of us. See this gift that God has become for us! Ring bells to wake us out of our stupor of despair and rouse us to gratitude! Likewise, at the end of the prayer, I bow before this gift and mystery, humbled that I (and you!) are invited to the feast.
Gracious welcome is not just spiritual. It is also physical. Today’s gospel about Jesus being the bread of life comes after the feeding of 5,000 and is connected to the story of hungry people in the wilderness. God’s care is for those in real hunger, and our call is to feed them and work for change so that all are fed. 1 in 9 people in eastern Massachusetts do not know where their next meal will come from. (Greater Boston Food Bank)
The food pantry basket brought to sit under this altar at the offertory is as important as this beautiful paten. The church garden outside that window, where we’re growing food for neighbors in need, is holy ground, just like this altar. It is an extension of this altar.
This week I heard a story from the Jewish tradition which sets out beautifully the transformation of heart to which we are called. It is a story about a wise rabbi, to whom someone came asking, “Rabbi, when does the night end?”
The person asked, “Is it when you see a plant and dawn has broken enough that you can recognize what the plant is” “No,” said the rabbi.
“Is it when someone is walking down the road and you know their name?” said the inquirer. “No, that is not it,” said the rabbi.
“The night ends,” he explained, “ when you see any man walking down the road and know that, whomever they are, they are your brother. Until then it is still dark out.”[i]
All are loved by God. God came among us and gave himself for us, so that we might be reunited with God and one another. All are our brothers and sisters. Come to the feast of this good news.
[i] I heard this story told at a conference, but my oral memory is imperfect! If anyone knows a source document for this story or wants to send me an emendation, please do and I’ll edit it here!