The Altar Guild: A Narrative Theology and Lectio
Fr. John A. Roop
Canon Theologian, Anglican Diocese of the South
Almighty and eternal God,
so draw our hearts to Thee, so guide our minds,
so fill our imagination, so control our wills,
that we may be wholly Thine,
utterly dedicated unto Thee;
and then use us, we pray Thee, as Thou wilt,
and always to Thy glory and the welfare of Thy people;
through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I describe this brief paper as a narrative theology and lectio on the ministry of the Altar Guild. I mean simply that the following thoughts are more suggestive than didactic, more on the order of parable than discourse. And that means that the real work is left to the reader. A parable is a riddle, a puzzle to be solved by living with it, in it, and through it until the moment of insight comes unexpectedly with both blessing and challenge. So it must be with the narratives that follow. None speaks directly to the ministry of the Altar Guild, certainly not as a theological manual to parallel the “how to” manuals that cover the operational details of the ministry. But the spirit, the nature, of the ministry of the Altar Guild permeates each story. Taken together, they impart a narrative theology of the Altar Guild that opens to its members through prayerful reading and reflection, that is, through the practice of lectio.
Have you ever noticed how many red cars there are on the roads these days? You will now simply because your attention has been drawn to them. The same is true in reading Scripture. Have you ever noticed how many texts speak to the ministry of the Altar Guild? You will now.
Lastly, an author should note his or her own biases. I am not impartial in writing about and for the Altar Guild. It is a ministry that is close to my heart. As both parishioner and priest, I have been blessed by the dedicated, humble, behind-the-scenes ministry of the faithful women and men who serve Christ and his Church through the Altar Guild. May God bless you.
Any theology of the ministry of the Altar Guild more naturally falls into the realm of the sanctified imagination than in the domain of dogma or doctrine, more images and stories than propositions and creeds. But, it is none the poorer for that; Jesus was a master of images and stories and no disciple is above his master. That theology begins here:
Mark 14:12–16 (ESV): 12 And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” 16 And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.
These two disciples, identified as Peter and John in St. Luke’s parallel account (Lk 22:8), constitute the first Christian Altar Guild, or at least the pre-image of it; they prepared the Paschal feast at which our Lord Jesus first spoke the Words of Institution, first offered bread and wine as his Body and Blood, first celebrated the Eucharist. It was both a first and a last:
Luke 22:14–16 (ESV): 14 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”
It is not only Jesus who waits for the fulfillment of the Eucharistic feast in the kingdom of God; it is the Church, as well. The Church — and, indeed, all creation — awaits that feast to come when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev 11:15), when he shall reign for ever, when the table is spread at the marriage supper of the Lamb:
Revelation 19:6–9 (ESV): 6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
8 it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.”
Who will make the preparations for that feast? Those who are invited constitute a single body, the Bride of Christ, and the Bride will be busy making herself ready, adorning herself in fine linen, bright and pure. Peter and John, along with the rest of the Twelve, will be on their thrones judging the twelve tribes (see Luke 22:28 ff), or else lost in worship (see Rev 19:4 ff). Perhaps the angels? Perhaps the Father himself will make ready the feast; it would not be uncharacteristic of our self-giving, condescending God.
Between the Last Supper and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the responsibility and the great privilege of preparing the Eucharistic Feast and setting the Table — which is none other than the altar on which the Church’s sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is offered perpetually — falls to those redeemed by the Body and Blood presented there. That holy ministry falls to the Altar Guild.
Eating and drinking is no small part of the Biblical narrative. The first fall of man is imaged by the eating of that which was as yet forbidden, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Noah rightly celebrated his salvation and the renewal of the earth by planting a vineyard, producing wine, but foolishly by drinking to excess. It must be assumed that the stomach was made for food and food for the stomach and that all the children of Adam and Eve have sustained themselves through eating and drinking.
But, feasting, particularly holy feasting, is another matter. It is perhaps — almost certainly — not coincidental that the first true feast mentioned in Scripture is the eucharistic feast celebrated by Melchizedek king of Salem upon the victory of Abram over the four kings of the plain.
Genesis 14:17–20 (ESV): 17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
20 and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Bread and wine: who prepared that first feast? It seems unlikely, though not impossible, that Melchizedek the priest and king made the preparations directly. No, that work probably fell to unnamed servants of the king: “Go, bake bread. Go, fill the skins with wine.” Little did they know that they were preparing a eucharistic feast to celebrate the victory of God for, in, and through his chosen servant Abram. Little did they know that they were the prototypical Altar Guild, faithful servants working behind the scenes with bread and wine to spread a table of triumph and praise.
Any preparation of any feast, any spreading of any table, is an act of hospitality, the roots of which run deeply in Scripture.
Genesis 18:1–8 (ESV): 18 And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7 And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
One of the greatest holy icons of the Church, written by Andrei Rublev in the 15th century, depicts this event: The Hospitality of Abraham. The icon features three “men” — considered to be the Old Testament image of the Holy Trinity — sitting at table, two of them blessing what has been prepared. Whether it is table or altar or both is perhaps intentionally left ambiguous. But, whatever it is, there is an open space for one more guest at the feast, a space whose perspective beckons the viewer inward to be seated there.
This act of holy hospitality is credited to Abraham in both Scripture and icon; but, it was Sarah and an anonymous young man who prepared the feast, who made the hospitality of Abraham possible. Sarah and the young man were a two person Altar Guild setting the altar/table for Abraham’s use, and for God’s. And that is the way with every act of hospitality; it involves dual agency — God and man working together — and manifold agents: those who prepare, those who host, and those who feast. At the Church’s altar the Altar Guild prepares, the priest hosts in persona Christi for it is indeed Christ’s table and feast, and the people of God eat and drink, dual agency and manifold agents offering the Church’s ultimate act of sacramental hospitality.
Sarah was integral to the hospitality of Abraham because she, too, was part of the covenant. In like token, the Altar Guild is integral to Holy Communion not as members of the New Covenant only, but as those who help make possible its proclamation and as those who extend Christ’s own hospitality to the world.
Perhaps the nearest the Old Testament comes to an institutionalized Altar Guild is the Levites:
1 Chronicles 23:28–32 (ESV): 28 For their duty was to assist the sons of Aaron for the service of the house of the Lord, having the care of the courts and the chambers, the cleansing of all that is holy, and any work for the service of the house of God. 29 Their duty was also to assist with the showbread, the flour for the grain offering, the wafers of unleavened bread, the baked offering, the offering mixed with oil, and all measures of quantity or size. 30 And they were to stand every morning, thanking and praising the Lord, and likewise at evening, 31 and whenever burnt offerings were offered to the Lord on Sabbaths, new moons, and feast days, according to the number required of them, regularly before the Lord. 32 Thus they were to keep charge of the tent of meeting and the sanctuary, and to attend the sons of Aaron, their brothers, for the service of the house of the Lord.
The Levites did not serve at the altar as sacrificial priests; their priesthood was of a different character: that of assisting the priestly sons of Aaron, that of handling and cleansing holy things, that of maintaining the sanctuary, that of assisting with bread, that of praising the Lord morning and evening as a kind of firstfruits of praise on behalf of the whole congregation. The service of the Levites was thoroughly imminent — the work of hands — and yet thoroughly transcendent — the work of hearts: earthly labor for the welfare of God’s people and spiritual labor for God’s glory alone. It is not that the Levites were not priests; it is that they were Levites. Nothing in the economy of God should be defined by what it is not, but rather by what God, in his wisdom and providence, has called it to be.
The Altar Guild is not the priesthood. It is not the diaconate. It is the Altar Guild — thanks be to God — doing the work that God has given it to do, a work not unlike the work of the Levites. Theirs are the practical matters, the details and scope of which vary from parish to parish and diocese to diocese. This is the technē — the “know how” — the contents of the Altar Guild Manual: Eucharists, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals and the full range of “ordinary” and “special” services in the annual round of worship of any church. These do not happen, and certainly do not happen smoothly, if the Altar Guild fails to attend appropriately to the practical matters. Ironically, perhaps, the more proficient the Altar Guild is at these practical matters, the less the Altar Guild is noticed; and that, paradoxically, is high praise.
Yes, it is important that the Altar Guild is proficient in the practical “skills” of the vocation. But it is even more important that the Altar Guild is faithful in prayer and praise like the Levites, standing every morning and every evening in thanking and praising the Lord.
There are many other Old Testament stories germane to the ministry of the Altar Guild. One would be remiss in failing to mention that wise woman Abigail whose preparation and provision for David and his men spared her household from certain destruction and saved David from the destructiveness of sin (1 Samuel 25). Her story was both tragedy and comedy: tragedy because it ended in the death of Nabal, her fool of a husband, and comedy because it ended in her wedding to David. It is astounding how bread and wine — along with sheep, grain, raisins, and figs — can rewrite a personal story, a family story, a national story.
Or that unnamed Altar Guild member who spread a table for enemies — perhaps even in the valley of the shadow of death — and spilled the wine on the table, overfilling and overflowing the cup (Psalm 23). What does it mean — what would it mean — to set the table/altar among enemies and why would we do such a thing? Is it an act of personal privilege and gloating — See what you’re missing?! — or is it an invitation to cease being enemies and join in the feast? The Eucharist is offered not just for us, but for the life of the world, and there are many enemies of the cross out there. And what of an overflowing cup: a symbol of abundance and favor, or a moment of inattention? Would one who fills the chalice to overflowing even be asked to serve again? There is puzzlement, dissonance, and possible calamity in this Psalm as well as wonder, harmony, and salvation, and that is true of all ministry, not least the ministry of the Altar Guild.
Or, on a darker note, Uzzah who laid his hand upon the ark of the covenant to steady it while transporting it in an unauthorized and therefore unholy manner (see 2 Sam 6). He perished — God struck him down — for daring to treat holy things in a common, ordinary, profane way. How does that speak to those who enter the chancel, approach the altar, and handle holy things?
Stories that speak — at least obliquely — to the ministry of the Altar Guild abound throughout the Old Testament. They are found in the New Testament, as well.
Where to begin? The Gospels are overflowing with narratives and images that inform the theology of the Altar Guild. Elizabeth, Zechariah, John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Joseph: all of these made preparation for the coming of our Lord, and all of these speak to the humble, faithful character of those who serve in a ministry of preparation. To ponder the mystery of holy Mary who prepared her heart and body — her life in its fullness — to receive the Lord is perhaps enough. To cultivate that same spirit is the true meaning and purpose of any theology of the Altar Guild.
Where to begin? Perhaps with the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry, with the first of the signs Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, with the first manifestation of his glory.
John 2:1–9 (ESV): 2 On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew)….
This is a good story: celebration, impending social disaster, minor conflict, surprising resolution, celebration restored and heightened. There is a wonderful cast of characters, too: Jesus and his disciples (who certainly contributed to the faux pas with the wine), Mary, the bridegroom, and the master of ceremonies. But, it is another group of characters that speaks most directly to the Altar Guild: the servants at the feast, those who made preparations.
The “view from below” is often clearer than the view from above; servants see things, servants know things that their masters do not. The servants knew that the water jars were filled to the brim with water; after all, they had filled the jars, trip after trip to the well, moving a half-ton of water that afternoon, with not so much as a please or thank you. They did it at Jesus’ bidding, which is itself a strange thing since he had no official capacity at the wedding beyond that of guest. The servants — at least one of their number — drew out some of the water to take to the master of the feast, again at Jesus’ direction. And when the master tasted this new, most excellent vintage, he had no idea from whence it had come, “though the servants who had drawn the water knew” (John 2:9). Servants see things; servants know things. Servants were the first to glimpse the wonder of the first of Jesus’ signs and wonders, the first manifestation of his glory.
Altar Guild members see things, know things that others might not: how the slant of light streaming in through the windows in the silence of the nave before the parishioners arrive speaks eloquently of the moment of creation when God said, “Let there be light,” speaks eloquently of Jesus who is himself the light of the world; how the small red stain on the purificator can cause a catch in the throat and a tear in the eye upon the realization that this is the blood of Christ shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins; how the cleaning of chalices and patens and linens is not, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “the bustle in the house the morning after death,” but rather the culmination of the feast of Christ’s victory in which “he broke the bonds of death, trampling Hell and Satan under his feet” (BCP 2019, p. 133), a feast that will be repeated until he comes again. Servants see things; servants know things.
Of course the “high and mighty” see things, too, know things, too — but often only when they leave their places at the head of the table to wash feet, often only when they become servants themselves.
John 19:38–42 (ESV): 38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
Important men, esteemed men — Joseph and Nicodemus — making the “last” preparations for the body of Christ. What did they see? What did they know? That their master was good and dead? That his “movement” was good and dead? That if they were not careful they would all be good and dead? Still, they came to do what they could to honor their master, a costly affair this gift of spices and tomb.
Not all local customs are the same, and the preparation of the table/altar will vary from parish to parish. But, often, the Altar Guild will place the empty chalice on the altar, cover it with a purificator, and place on top of the chalice the paten with the Priest’s Host, the one that will be broken at the Fraction. Over the paten is placed the pall. This is a burial of sorts. The bread (priest’s host) which will become the body of Christ, is buried in the tomb of the paten, wrapped in linen cloths (the pall). Over that is placed the veil, just as a stone was rolled against the opening of the tomb. The Altar Guild performs, week by week, the ministry that Joseph and Nicodemus performed just that once — the reverent preparation of Christ’s body for burial. But the Altar Guild sees and knows what Joseph and Nicodemus could not, that they are making preparations not for the ending of things — “the sweeping up the heart and putting love away” (Dickinson) — but for the beginning of things, for the restoration of all things.
The table after a feast is always a bit in disarray: chairs pushed back from the table, bowls partially empty, plates dirty, napkins on the table and in the chairs. It is the same at the altar, and it falls to the Altar Guild to clean up the “mess.” Here the Gospel narrative moves to the first day of the week, to Peter and John running to the tomb upon hearing Mary Magdalene’s startling news:
John 20:3–10 (ESV): 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.
What a mess: stone rolled away, tomb empty, linen cloths just lying around, “napkin” folded and in another place altogether. Who “cleaned up”? Perhaps not that day — there was much confusion, after all — but the next day, surely someone came and retrieved the linen cloths and the face cloth, relics not of Jesus’ death any longer, but tangible witnesses of his resurrection. Perhaps that is a fitting way for the Altar Guild to view its work: preparing the body of Christ for burial as it lays the altar and collecting the relics of the resurrection as it cleans up — both actions holy work.
Perhaps one final bit of the narrative — this one on the same day, but in a different place, a home in Emmaus.
Luke 24:28–31 (ESV): 28 So they [Cleopas, his companion, and Jesus] drew near to the village to which they were going. He [Jesus] acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.
Someone baked the bread and set the table and had all in readiness when Cleopas, his companion, and a stranger reclined at table. That table became an altar and those unnamed servants became an Altar Guild. Little did they realize that the bread they had prepared was no ordinary bread and their daily routine of preparing a meal was no ordinary task. It was sacramental, the outward and physical sign and proclamation of the resurrection. It was the material, the form, through which blind eyes were opened, chilled hearts kindled, and sleeping hope awakened, as it is to this day.
From Melchizedek to Cleopas, from the territory around Sodom to a home in Emmaus and beyond to New Jerusalem, the great narrative that is Holy Scripture features tables and feasts and servants who prepared them. It is holy work, the work of hands and hearts lovingly offered to the glory of God and the welfare of his people. May the Lord bless you for your faithful service.
Almighty God, grant we beseech Thee, that all who handle holy things and approach Thy holy altar, may do so with reverent hearts, and may perform their duties and fulfill their ministry with such faith and devotion that it may rise with acceptance before Thee and obtain Thy blessing, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.