Each week, before the service begins, the altar is dressed in appropriate linens. For most of the history of the church, the altar was made of marble. To protect this fragile but beautiful material, the altar guild would cover the top of the altar with a Cerecloth.
A Cerecloth was a piece of waxed linen that was made to fit exactly on the top of the altar to protect the fair linen from the dampness of the stone and the wooden altar from wet spills. It was a practical cloth and was not seen by the congregation. Depending on the circumstances, many churches today use a piece of plastic cut to the appropriate size.
On top of the cerecloth when the Frontal. It is the cloth that reflects the color of the season and can be anything from a tiny drape over the front of the altar to a large cloth that completely covers both front and back of the altar. Many frontals are made of very expensive materials and are heavily decorated. Ours are made of color appropriate pieces that reflect the season. Since we not yet in a permanent home with its corresponding altar, our frontals are hand made and can be replaced, if necessary. Each week they give a clue to where we stand in the church year. For the next several months, we will mostly use green. [Note that the frontal and the chasuble are matching, as is the veil over the chalice]. Green is the color of growth and the time of the year when the Gospel readings are usually focused on the teachings and parable of Jesus.
Over the frontal, you find the Fair Linen. This piece, as the name implies, should be a piece of very nice white cloth. It goes over the top of the altar and may hang down the sides. Some fair linen is embroidered with five crosses, reminiscent of the five wounds of Christ. Again, ours has been hand made by a member of the congregation to fit the needs of this particular altar.
In the center of the altar and closest to the celebrant, you will see a lovely square piece that is embroidered with an appropriate symbol, i.e. a lamb triumphant, a cross, or something that points to Jesus. This cloth is called the Corporal. It protects the fair linen from any spills and catches any particle of the bread that might fall on it. The word comes from the Latin “corpus” meaning “body.” Each week the body [wafers] and blood [wine in the chalice] are placed on top of this linen.