The altar mystically represents Christ’s body therefore it is clothed with regal and priestly vesture.
This practice of clothing sacred items actually comes from the Christian and especially the Roman idea of veiling the sacred mysteries of the Faith. The first vesture of the altar is the altar cloths which are made of pure, white linen. Long ago, linen was associated with the wealthy due to the fabric’s high quality and cost of production. In the Old Temple of Jerusalem, God also prescribed the use of linen. It was also a fine linen burial shroud that was placed over Our Lord’s crucified body in the Holy Sepulcher: which today is known as the Holy Shroud of Turin.
What is required to cover the mensa or table of the altar as well as the sides? Three altar cloths. Ideally all three cloths should cover the entire surface from edge to edge. However, it is allowed to have two shorter cloths under the full top cloth. The practical reason for having three cloths is to act as a safeguard against the accidental desecration of the Precious Blood. If the chalice accidentally tipped over, the three cloths would be sufficient to absorb all of the Precious Blood from the chalice and thus preventing It from dripping to the ground. This is why the altar cloths should not be starched because this water-proofs the fabric and protects the linen from it’s natural properties of absorption. The three linen cloths also have a symbolic purpose and a profound relation to the altar which mystically represents Christ’s body. First, the cloths are in imitation of the linen shroud that covered Our Lord’s body in the Sepulcher. Second, the three cloths signify the triple-fold Communion of the Saints; that is, Church Triumphant, Church Suffering and Church Militant. This not only indicates the intimate union that the Communion of Saints have with Our Lord Jesus Christ, but also how the Saints cloth Him with honor. Third, the linen altar cloths signify the Mystical Banquet of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Just as we cloth our table at home for an important meal, the Church clothes her altars (or Eucharistic Tables) for the Divine formal meal which gives us the Bread of Heaven. An interesting fact, the altar was often referred to as the “Divine Table” or even the “Holy Board” in Catholic England because it was from this edifice that we are supernaturally fed with the Blessed Sacrament. Unfortunately this traditional concept of the Divine Meal as found in the traditional Roman Mass and especially of the Eastern Rite Divine Liturgies has been mutated by the Novus Ordo Missae into a heterodox emphasis of a merely natural community supper.
The top cloth of the altar linens has a long rectangular shape and covers not only the mensa, but also drapes down to cover each side of the altar. The top cloth should drape down to about an inch above the predella so it is not stepped on, thus nearly covering the entire side of the altar. While it is common today to see the front edge of the top cloth trimmed with lace, however, this is actually not the ideal practice as denoted by many rubricians. The first reason is because it is presumed that an antependium will cover the front of the altar. Second reason, is because this hanging lace can actually detract from the altar’s look and shape, and thereby our focus on the stone of sacrifice and even the actions of the Mass. One way in which this negative effect can occur is through the common use of an inferior type of lace, a common complaint of liturgists. But even more critical is due to having an exaggerated length of lace hanging down the front of the altar, which bunches up at the corners and down the sides. This gives the altar cloths a frumpy look and obscures the clean lines, or rectangular form, of the altar. However, it is allowed to have an inch or two of the top cloth to drape over the altar’s front edge, which may be either plain linen, embroidered in color, or even of fine lace. In such cases, it is presumed that this overrun of lace or embroidery is on the middle altar cloth, extending only from edge to edge of the mensa.
Moving on to the altar frontal or antependium from the Latin of “to hang in front”. Since the altar is Christ’s body, it is presumed by the rubrics that the front will be covered in regal and priestly vesture, just as the priest is at Mass. This rectangular-shaped frontal covers the entire front of the altar as a vestment and is usually the color of the Mass being celebrated. In addition, to signifying the dignity of the altar, the antependium also lends a colorful focus to the altar and thereby the Mass actions. The antependium can be hung either from a rod under the front edge of the altar or attached to one of the altar cloths. Some antependiums are actually permanently fixed to a wooden or metal frame and then secured to the front of the altar, as is done on the high altar at St. Peter’s Basilica. In cases where there is a gap between the mensa’s edge and the antependium, because its suspended from a rod a few inches below the altar’s front edge, another smaller antependium is used called a “superfrontal”, from the Latin, “above the frontal”.
To learn more about The Altar – part II – vesture of the altar, listen to Learning about the Roman Liturgy with Louis Tofari on Magnificat Radio at www.magnificatmedia.com at 10am, 1pm, 6:30pm, and 10pm, CST, USA. To purchase books and materials mentioned on Learning about the Roman Liturgy with Louis Tofari visit this link: Romanitas Press