Thursday, March 10, 2011

To veil or not to veil --- plus Isaiah

The altar cross at St. Andrew's.

It’s getting to be high time to move on, but I spent a little time Wednesday channeling a distant and now deceased cousin, Elinor, once directress of the Altar Guild (sometimes referred to unkindly as the Altar Guilt) at a large Episcopal church. So Ash Wednesday still is fresh in my mind. Plus, looking into the mirror a while ago it occurred to me that I’d forgetten to wash the ashy cross off my forehead before retiring.

Altar guilds, for the uniniated, are groups of people --- traditionally women in the patriarchal church --- charged with making sure everything related to the altar from flowers through linen to communion wine is just so. Occasionally, Altar Guild members can be almost levitical in their zeal. I’m familiar with a Lutheran Altar Guild that once decided collectively that only white flowers should be used on the altar and woe be unto anyone who proposed even a blush of pink.

The altar guild barrier to men has by now been shattered, at least in the Episcopal church --- a tall friend of mine was drafted into the Guild by his wife, for example, simply because his height meant he could accomplish without a step ladder tasks his guild sisters found challenging. But most Altar Guild members still are women.

We’re far too small a parish to have an official altar guild, so what needs doing gets done by whoever has the time to do it --- and I volunteered to change the altar frontal yesterday afternoon from workaday green to Lenten purple.

The frontal is a long strip of heavily embroidered and fringed brocade attached to a larger linen cloth (covered by the altar cloth) than hangs down over the front of the altar and is changed to match the appropriate seasonal color of the church --- white, purple, green and occasionally (Pentecost, for example) red for the most part. The major challenge involved in changing the frontal at St. Andrew’s is manhandling the seven-foot lead bar (both heavy and clumsy) that holds the whole assemblage in place without poking out a stained glass window.

That accomplished, it occurred to me that we usually veil (cover with black veiling) the cross at the highest point on the altar during Lent, but I couldn’t remember when we did it. In a way, I hate to do this because it’s a beautiful cross, dating from the 1880s and given by someone long forgotten in thanksgiving for a life that was spared according to the initialed inscription on it (I could probably figure out to whom the initials belonged, but so far haven’t).

And when it comes right down to it, veiling or not veiling the cross --- being purely symbolic --- is of no importance at all in the grand scheme of things. Plus, it’s been done for so long that no one can remember exactly why it’s done --- or when the practice started (there are all sorts of theories, however). Roman Catholics have worked out clear guidelines for veiling, Protestants generally haven’t.

In the end, I decided to veil and arranged the big black square of cloth to cover it. That seemed appropriate for the somber and reflective Ash Wednesday mood. We can talk about the rest of Lent on Sunday. Keep the veil in place or remove it until Holy Week so that it can be snatched away symbolically prior to Easter Vigil? We’ll see.


Because of their power, the lessons for Ash Wednesday always are the same in denominations that follow a lectionary, designed to take worshippers from beginning to end of the Bible in a three-year cycle. For Roman Catholics, the Old Testament lesson always is from the prophet Joel; Protestants may choose either Joel or a reading from Isaiah.

I prefer Isaiah. It’s a sobering reminder of priorities as the “people,” as we always have, quarrel, fight and point fingers, debating who is in rebellion, who is righteous and who is the biggest sinner --- loose instead the bonds of injustice, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, heal the afflicted. Seriously? Seriously. God is just so darned unreasonable sometimes.

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.

"Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?"

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?

Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

(Isaiah 58:1-12)

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