Church Vestments and Textile Furnishings
Why Linen? Linen Only Proper Material On The Altar
"Fashions change, the old costumes are abandoned, new styles are taken up; it is hard to find two men or women dressed alike. But the Church never changes her vestments coming down from the Temple and the Last Supper. No Pope, Council or power on earth could forbid them because they are of divine origin. "When fanatical ignorant reformers of the sixteenth century swept over the north of Europe, not understanding the nature of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, they dismantled churches of religious signs, symbols and emblems, and their ministers preached in ordinary garments".
From the Book: How Christ Said The First Mass By Rev. James L. Meagher
The concern shown by Father Meagher in his book on the first Mass was apparently not without fear for what was happening in the modern church. Throughout the chapter on the vestments and the use of linens, he cautions the use of material not acceptable for use in the Church. Years ago, the concern was for the use of silk in place of linen; today, the concern is over the use of synthetic fabrics in place of linen.
Obviously, there could be a choice. No question, linen is more expensive, hard to care for and often difficult to obtain. Synthetics are easy care, inexpensive, readily available.
These are often the only arguments when comparing these materials for use as altar cloths, small linens and albs. However, to properly decide on the choice, one must look back beyond the last thirty years. We should study the following areas: Church Law, tradition, custom and symbolism.
Let's look first at the customs and traditions connected with the use of linen. Before the birth of Christ, as written in Exodus, Chapters 26, 27, and 28, the prescribed use of cloth in both the tabernacle curtains and vestments was limited to linen. During the time of Christ, the use of linen continued, and if we look at the Church as it grew, we find linen is the material always used for certain religious vestments and altar cloths.
Again, a specific mention of linen, this time in the Apocalypse: "And the seven angels came out of the temple having seven plagues, clothed in white linen, girded about the breasts with golden girdles." (xv. 6) "And to her it hath been granted that she should clothe herself with fine linen glittering and white. For fine linen are the justifications of saints," (xix. 8) As can be seen even from earliest times, linen was not only used by the clergy, but also was and is the vestment in Heaven. In addition, there is a great symbolism in the use of linen as the cloth for vestments or altar cloth. It has been ever present throughout the history of the Church.
Let's consider the making of linen. Flax must be prepared by beating, and then woven into linen, just as our flesh is purified by suffering. Linen is not naturally white, but must be washed and bleached: just as our souls must also be washed and bleached through the Blood of Christ. The bleached whiteness of the linen should be obvious to all. It represents cleanliness of heart and purity of life.
We should also note that the Body of Christ was wrapped in linen while resting in the tomb. Should not the Mystical Body of Christ be likewise adorned? The corporal is a good example of this, along with the napkin or sudarium representing the separate cloth in which our Savior's head was wrapped.
The amice serves to remind us of the veiling of the face and eyes of Jesus. The cincture represents the cords used to bind Our Lord at His capture, the ropes that tied His hands during the scourging and the throngs which tore His Flesh during the torture. As with other aspects of the Sacrifice of the Mass the true significance of the linen is deeper than just the outward appearance.
Finally, we come to Church Law. One of the earliest references concerning linen comes from Pope Sylvesterl(314-335) in which he ordained that the Sacrifice of the Mass should be offered only on a white linen. This is reinforced with the following: "....the amice and alb must be linen. Silk and woolen cinctures corresponding to the color of the day are permitted, but it is preferred they be of white linen". (S.R.C., Jan 22,1701).
We have further confirmation of linen's use from the general decree of the Congregation of Rites, May 19, 1819. "All the remaining white material destined for the service of the altar, (corporals, palls, purificators, albs, amices and finger towels), so also the altar cloths must be of linen (flax or hemp); all other materials (for example: silk cotton, muslin), although equal to linen in quality, firmness and beauty, are strictly forbidden."
Today, priests have an obligation to teach and carry on, not only the basic precepts of the Mass, but also, the symbolism with all its meaning from the prayers and gestures to the furnishings and the apparel. They must be aided and assisted by responsible lay people who prepare their linens for them as they move quickly on a Sunday from Mass to Mass.
It should be a prime concern of everyone connected with the preparation for offering Mass that without complete accord and agreement with the traditional rules of our church, without the symbolism of every action, every item concerned with the Mass, we will eventually lose our greatest treasure, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Surely, in this day and age, this is a loss none of us can afford. This article started with a warning about what had happened to the use of sacred vestments in the Reformation. It paralleled almost exactly what happened in the Catholic Church in the late 1960's and early 1970's when, following Vatican II, priests and nuns stopped wearing their habits, became Joe and Betty instead of Father Joseph Jones and Sr. Mary Elizabeth.
The excerpt from the book mentioned above continues: "But a reaction took place; ritualism revived, clerical robes again were seen in non-Catholic pulpits; disputes waxed warm; color, shape and number of ecclesiastical garments divided denominations, and highly ritualistic churches introduced vestments."
Many of the vestments have been returned or have continued to be used, but we have lost a sense of the symbolism and meaning behind those vestments. It is up to the traditionally minded Catholics to retain that value, that sy mbolism, that tradition. For those interested in further research, three books are recommended: How Christ Said the First Mass, by Father James L. Meagher, D.D.; The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Gihr; and The History of The Mass and its Ceremonies, By Rev. John O'Brien, A.M. J.M.F.