Extraordinary in the Ordinary
by Fr. Godfrey Bushmaker, O.Praem.
The cloth that had covered his head was not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Words taken from the gospel for Easter Sunday.
There are a number of extraordinary things in the account of the Resurrection that have been the subject of much theological writing, but there’s also something rather ordinary that’s worthy of our attention.
While our Lord’s body was in the tomb, His soul was busy ushering the souls of Limbo into heaven—some of whom had been waiting for this moment for ages (literally). Our Lord is now risen, proving that He is indeed the Lord of life and death, just as He had said—and soon He’ll be showing His Apostles the glorious reward that awaits all those who remain true to Him to the end.
And so we can imagine our Lord rising from the cold slab of the tomb; the cave bathed in the brilliance of His resurrected and glorified body; countless angels surrounding Him, praising His victory over sin and death; the gratitude of the countless souls He ushered into heaven; the large stone sealing the tomb being wrenched from its place and cast aside, and the first act of the newly risen King, the first-born of all creation, is—what? Carefully folding a piece of cloth and putting it away?
Does this seem a bit too mundane or domestic a thing to do at this pivotal point of human history? Why did our Lord bother with this little chore? Why did the Evangelist include such a trivial detail in his account of the Resurrection? The reporting of the extraordinary event of the Resurrection and all its repercussions seems to stand in sharp contrast to this very ordinary little task. But, is it really?
Perhaps the message we’re meant to receive is that His Resurrection, as glorious as it is, was accomplished for us precisely so that even our slightest actions could have a value far beyond their immediate effect. Our Lord’s death and Resurrection created an infinite pool of merit from which our good works and prayers draw from. The more love with which we perform an act, whatever its size or scope, the more supernatural benefits we receive for it.
Considering this, our Lord’s folding of the linen cloth may serve as a special example to the women of the Altar Society and others involved in maintaining parish altar linens, sacred vessels, and vestments. Our Lord’s attentiveness suggests the importance such duties have (“ordinary” as they’re often considered) by showing us the care that the linens and vessels coming into contact with His glorified body deserve.
The special care given to the sacred vestments and linens used in service of God dates back to the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament. God Himself described the design of the linens, garments, and furnishings that were to be used around the altar—and the various vestments, linens and instruments used in today’s Mass are all derived from those ancient directives—except with added symbolic meanings inspired by our Lord’s death and Resurrection.
For example, scripture mentions that both the garments of the angels in heaven and God’s consecrated priests are made of white linen. If we consider how linen is made, we might understand why. It’s primary ingredient, flax, has to be prepared by beating it before it can be woven into linen, which coincides with how our Lord’s flesh was scourged and beaten during the passion before it was glorified and renewed in the Resurrection.
Linen is not naturally white, but has to be first washed and bleached—just as our souls also need to be washed and bleached by the blood of Christ in confession to become spotless once again. Incidentally, this is why priests’ albs are white and why our founder, Saint Norbert, prescribed that our Norbertine habit was to be white. They are both to remind us of the clothing of the angels at the Resurrection tomb as well as represent a cleanliness of heart and purity of life.
Pious traditions have given similar meanings to the various linens used at Mass. The cloth that our Lord rolled up was known as a sudarium, or face cloth. This was represented in the old Latin liturgy by the priest’s “maniple,” which is a strip of cloth worn around his forearm to wipe the perspiration from his brow.
The “amice” is a large square of cloth that the priest touches to his head and then wears around his shoulders. It serves as a reminder of the blindfolding of our Lord during the buffeting by the soldiers. The long cords of the amice and the cincture worn around his waist represent the ropes that bound our Lord throughout his passion.
The altar cloth represents the large burial cloth wrapped around our Lord’s body within the tomb. The altar itself symbolizes Mount Calvary, immovable: being made of marble or stone which was prescribed by God for a place of sacrifice.
The large, starched square of linen the priest lays on the altar cloth at the offertory is called the “corporal.” It’s folded into thirds in honor of the Blessed Trinity and on it is placed our Lord’s body and blood, either directly or within the sacred vessels. It is starched to represent the hard marble floor of Pilate’s Praetorium, on which our Lord lay during His scourging.
The linen “purificator” is used to remove any stray particles of our Lord’s body and blood from the sacred vessels. It is also folded three times in honor of the Trinity and, when folded up, has the same proportions as the altar cloth, since it too (at least potentially) comes into contact with our Lord’s precious body and blood.
The “pall” is a square white card, covered with linen, which is placed over the open chalice. It represents the heavy stone slab the angels removed to reveal the empty tomb to Mary Magdalen. Similar symbolic meanings have been assigned by tradition to all the rest of the liturgical items, but these are the most popular.
Those providing needed services for the celebration of the sacred mysteries—whether by cleaning the church or the linens, providing music, altar serving, reading or simply helping with necessary expenses—whatever we may do, if we do it with care, our Lord teaches us (in the very midst of His resurrection) that they will reap for us a glorious reward.
Let us pray that we set no limits on the love with which we serve God in even our smallest actions. May we imitate our Lord, for Whom even folding a cloth which touched His own sacred head was not considered undue care in the moment of His Resurrection, because, in giving it proper reverence, He reverenced His Father Who provided it to Him and Who raised Him up on Easter morning.
We are all of us here this morning to celebrate the rising of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. This is not a metaphorical event, a wish of believers transposed onto reality, but the real reunion of His human soul returning from Limbo with His human body lying in the Holy Sepulcher. It is into this historical event that we are incorporated, that we partake and claim as our own identity, through holy baptism.
Rising from the dead is an experience not just of Christ on Easter morning, nor of mankind as a whole on the Last Day, but of everyone who, like the women in the Gospel, departs from the tomb, the place needed on account of sin’s just punishment; departs from the death of sin through the mercy and forgiveness of Christ; departs quickly because we should never delay our conversion or dawdle in our iniquity.
Check back frequently for new writings, videos, and audio.
Enjoy critically acclaimed documentary series, video lectures, and more from the Norbertine Fathers, on-demand in the Abbot’s Circle video library.
Immerse yourself in a collection of chants, reflections, audio lectures, and more from the Norbertine Fathers, on-demand in the Abbot’s Circle audio library.
Enjoy a vast collection of thought-provoking written reflections from the Norbertine Fathers in the Abbot's Circle written library.