Altar Guild Workshop 2019, Pt. III

Welcome back to the third and final session of this year’s altar guild workshop. So far, we have reviewed our Lutheran confession of faith when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. We have explored the idea that what we believe about something should be reflected in our actions. And, we have learned about the items needed for the celebration of the Sacrament. Tonight, we’re going to learn a little bit about church architecture. Then, we’re going to learn about setting up for the Lord’s Supper – what goes where, and so on. Finally, we’ll talk about how we should take down after the service has ended.


Maybe the first question to ask is, what is a church? What is a church building, and what is it for? A church is a building where God’s faithful people gather together to receive the Lord’s Supper, to receive God’s blessings through His Word and Sacraments, to speak back to Him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, and be encouraged through corporate worship and Bible study. These are just some ways to describe a church, but the focus overall is the loving faithfulness of God toward us in Christ, as given to us in the Means of Grace. This is actually reflected in how church buildings are laid out. At least, according to traditional church architecture – of which, both our congregations are examples.

In the history of the Church, it has been quite common for churches to be built west-east. People would enter, generally, in the west and face forward to the east. This isn’t always possible or practical, so this isn’t always the case. Regardless of the actual orientation, the altar is always said to be in the east (liturgical east). The right side of the altar (as you face it) is called the north or Gospel side, the left the south or Epistle side. Now that we have our directions down, we can start to navigate the rest of the building. A church building has two main parts, the chancel and the nave. The chancel is where the altar is. The nave is the main body of the church, where the congregation sits. If there is a space the congregation enters before the main worship space, that is called the narthex. In history, this often where baptisms would take place – symbolizing the washing away of sin before entering God’s presence. These are the big divisions everyone should know. But, there is one more that is helpful for us to know now. In most churches there is a room off of the chancel for the pastor to vest before services, which might also hold the supplies for the divine service. This is called the sacristy. 

Now, let’s zoom in to the altar. The altar stands front and center in the sanctuary. It is a sign of God’s enduring presence among His people. Though the language of altar presents us with the idea of sacrifice, in the Lutheran Church we understand the altar as, primarily, the place where our Lord distributes to us His many gifts: chiefly, in the Sacrament, but also in the words of Absolution. Only after, may we talk about the altar as a place of offering – since it is where we place our offerings of thanksgiving. Just as the building has parts, so does the altar. The top of the altar is called the mensa. In many cases, the mensa is inscribed with five crosses – one in each corner and one in the middle. These correspond to the five wounds of our Lord on the cross. On top of the mensa go just about everything we’re about to talk about.


We’ve already talked about the items that we need for the celebration of the Sacrament. We need the elements of bread and wine. Without these, it wouldn’t be the Lord’s Supper. In order for easier distribution of the Sacrament, we also use plates and cups of various kinds. In most cases, however, we don’t just throw all these things on the altar. When you’re having a fine meal at home with your guests, you might put out a tablecloth and some nice napkins. This serves a purpose. Number one, it protects your table, but it also adds a dignity to the meal. Setting up a nice tablecloth and the like says that what’s going on is important. We also take that approach to the Lord’s Supper.

Before we place the communion vessels upon the altar, we first vest the altar. We can talk more about paraments some other time; let’s focus on items connected to the Supper. Right on top of the altar, cut to the exact size of the mensa is a linen called the cere linen. This used to be a waxed linen placed upon stone altars to prevent condensation from ruining other things. Over the cere linen goes the fair linen. This is the first thing you can see from the pews. It’s a white cloth the width of the altar that extends over the ends a little bit. Traditionally, this has been made of the finest linen available, as it symbolizes the linen used to wrap the body of the Lord.

On top of the fair linen, in the center of the altar, goes the corporal. The corporal is a square cloth that the communion vessels are placed upon. It, also, should be of fine material, since it represents the cloth that was placed on our Lord’s face while He rested in the tomb. Once the vessels are placed upon the corporal, then the pall goes on top of the chalice. This is a square piece of a stiff material, covered in fine linen. The purificator is set alongside the chalice. This is the linen used for cleansing the rim of the chalice during the distribution. Over all the vessels before and after the distribution is another piece of fine linen called a communion veil. Some congregations have a veil just for the chalice and a larger one for the other vessels. Finally, a burse is a envelope-like case used to house the corporal, purificators, and veils when not in use.


Now comes the part that occasioned all of this. How do we set up the Lord’s Supper? First things first. For reasons that we’ll talk about later, we want to know how many we are expecting to commune, so that we can have an appropriate amount of supplies. If we are expecting 40, we wouldn’t want to be setting a table for 100. Ordinarily, we want to keep the number we prepare for and the number of those actually communing fairly close. Once you have your numbers, in the sacristy, find the hosts. Count out the appropriate number and place them in the appropriate vessel. At Grace, that’ll be the paten. At St. John’s, the ciborium. If there are hosts that have been previously consecrated, be sure to use those first. After preparing the hosts, prepare the wine. In the sacristy, fill the appropriate amount of individual cups and place them in the trays. Also, fill the flagon with an appropriate amount. As with the hosts, be sure to use any previously consecrated wine first.

Next, find the corporal. Stretch it out on the center of the altar. Then, take the chalice and place it on the center of the corporal. From north to south, place a purificator across the mouth of the chalice. When possible, place the paten over the chalice, and the pall atop. Once those are in place, the paten or ciborium are placed back and left of it (the liturgical south east). The flagon then may be placed back and right of the chalice. Once these are all in place, the veil goes over all. The trays of individual cups are then placed to the right. They may be under the veil if it is large enough, or another may be over the trays by themselves. This is how we prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. How, then, do we clean up after?

Remember the thesis we’ve been working with. What we believe about something should be reflected in our actions. What we believe about the Lord’s Supper should be reflected in our actions before, during, and after. We believe that, at the Word of Institution, the bread and wine are changed in such a way as to be both bread and wine and Christ’s body and blood. The term for this is Sacramental Union. In the Roman Catholic Church, they believe that the substances of bread and wine are forever and unalterably changed into the body and blood. In the Lutheran Church, we believe that apart from the administration and distribution of the Sacrament, bread is bread and wine is wine. That is to say, after the distribution has ended, at some point, the earthly elements return to being simply the earthly elements. When the Book of Concord speaks on this topic it purposely does not say when the bread and wine are no longer Christ’s body and blood, because we can’t know. At some point the Sacramental Union does end, but we’re not exactly sure when. This means that there are certain ways should act with what remains from the Supper.

Remember, also, the word we’re looking for here is reverant. Even if these elements are no longer Christ’s body and blood, they are still bread and wine that at one point were. These were the true body and blood of Christ which conveyed His life, love, and forgiveness to us poor sinners. Therefore, we handle what remains with reverence. There are a few ways to do this, and each has a longstanding history in the Christian Church. The first option is reserving the reliquae for future use – for home and hospital communion services, and for the next Divine Service among the congregation. In this case, the hosts that remain are kept separate from unconsecrated hosts. This helps the pastor and altar guild know which are to be used first. The remaining wine, likewise, is stored in a separate container from unconsecrated wine. In both cases, the separate containers should be clearly marked or in other ways made obvious.

A second, and equally as ancient, practice is simply to consume everything. This does require keeping diligent counts so that we don’t end up consuming an unnecessarily large amount of reliquae. In this case, the wine from the individual cups is poured into the chalice. Then, the pastor and assisting minister consume what remains, there at the altar. This may also be done by the pastor and altar guild after the service. Our Lord said to eat and drink and this method stays as close to this as possible. This was the method practiced at the seminary while I was there. These are both reverent and acceptable options, and it isn’t a sin to choose one or the other. Often, a combination of both takes place. Another common practice with the wine is to pour it out on the ground. In this case, what comes from the earth returns to it. We pour it directly on the ground and not down the sink so that wine which previously was the blood of Christ is not mixed with common waste.

What about the vessels? After properly storing or consuming the elements, the communion vessels should be cleaned with soap and water. An additional step should be taken with the chalice and individual cups. The individual cups should first be rinsed into a larger container, then washed as normal. The initial rinse water is then poured onto the ground. This, again, prevents wine that was previously Christ’s blood from becoming mixed with common waste. We rinse the chalice by pouring water into it and then onto the ground. After being washed, plastic communion cups may be recycled. A practice in some congregations is simply to burn the used individual cups. This, also, is a good practice. There are some tips for laundering the linens which I will leave to other discussions. This much is good for us all to know.

This about brings our workshop to a close. There is more that could be said, but I think this much should suffice for now. We do have some resources available to us for further study. Probably the most authoritative is What an Altar Guild Should Know by Paul H.D. Lang. This is from 1964, but is usually mentioned as the standard. The Altar Guild Manual by Lee A. Maxwell was authorized by the LCMS Commission on Worship in 1996. That one is available directly from CPH.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: