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December 23, 2004
This is a week of very heavy church -- never heavier than when Christmas Day falls on a weekend, necessitating three important sermons back to back, followed by three successive smaller ones for the little feasts of St. Stephen, St. John and the Holy Innocents. It is true that many people will be thrown off their schedules and not realize that the day after Christmas is Sunday, but you must still have something to say to those who remember and come.

I thought of this yesterday, when I upset an entire carafe of water on the freshly ironed fair linen in the chapel during the healing service. Only one altar guild member was present, and she was kindness itself, bundling up the wet cloth and taking it home to iron, in a week when I know she has precious little time for the unnecessary duplication of ironing. I have something of a reputation in that parish: once, when I was a young curate there, I spilled most of a cruet of red wine on the snowy fair linen*. When I left to go to Trinity Wall Street, the altar guild gave me a spray can of spot remover as a good-bye gift.

Ed Chinery came over last evening at five o'clock to get some ivy -- Take all you want, I said, remembering how I curse the invasive vines and deep roots in the spring when we're clearing it out of the flower beds. We went out with a flashlight in the solstice dark, pulling up long ropes of the glossy leaves until Ed's arms were full of them. He came from a long day at work. When he left, the church was exquisite. The altar guild is magic like that. Miracle workers.

We say it is heavy church for us, the clergy. But we have taken vows to be there and do this work -- the others who labor so hard to make the church wonderful come from busy homes, draining jobs, and they don't have to be there. They could stay home. It is the goodness of their hearts and their love of the community that brings them out on a dark night to create beauty to the glory of God, that sends them home with a bundle of damp linen, when they thought all the ironing was done, to make it crisp and perfect -- again.

I wonder if they know how redemptive their work is? How silently eloquent the crisp white of the fair linen, the perfect squares of the purificators, the gleam of the silver and brass, how these things speak of a restored human nature, of the rough places leveled and straightened, of all the stains of human life on earth removed in Christ? Do they know that the holly and the ivy promise resurrection to the people of God in the depths of winter, and that these phyiscal things speak volumes to the people who will appear on Christmas Eve but not at other times, who don't think about God much during the year, that these beauties may touch them more deeply than any priest's sermon?

*If you are not a member of the clergy or of the altar guild, know that
my repeated use of "fair linen" is not just a poetic turn of phrase on
my part: it is a technical term for the white cloth that covers the altar.
Washing and ironing one is not for sissies -- I can
remember my mother down on her hands and knees on the rug,
ironing the fair linen on a triple layer of clean sheets.
The poetry come from the sixteenth century, not from me. When you
say it, you say "fair linen," emphasizing the first word. Just a little
church trivia, in case you ever need it.
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