A communion table, also called an altar, is used during different religious services and celebrations to make an offering or sacrifice. If you have ever been to a Catholic Church, you may wonder why the communion table must be covered.
The use of altar coverings in the Catholic Church dates back to the fourth century, when the altar was covered during the celebration of the Mass. However, in the seventh century, Pope Boniface III was the first Roman Catholic Pope to pass a decree making an altar cloth or covering of a communion table mandatory. Today, Roman Catholic churches continue this practice.
Any cloths used on the altar must be blessed by the bishop before it may be used during the celebration of the Mass.
The obligation of using an altar cloth, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, is so that if the Precious Blood is spilt it will then be absorbed into an altar cloth. Great care is taken in cleaning the altar cloth if the Precious Blood has been spilt on the cloth. The cloth must then be cleaned in a sacrarium, which is a drain inside the sacristy that goes back into the soil. This sink is used especially for disposing of water used to wash altar linens, chalices or other items that may have Holy Communion on it.
The exception to not using an altar cloth is based on grave necessity, or in giving Holy Communion to someone as part of their last rites if dying.
Altars are normally made of wood or marble. The placement of a white cloth over a communion table is a sign of respect and acts as a reminder of baptismal garments, which should be kept pure until the second coming of Christ. According to the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy, the covering of the altar, therefore, shows reverence for the celebration of Jesus' sacrifice and the remembrance through the offering of His Body and Blood during the Sacrifice of the Mass.
Although different colours may be used to cover a communion table, a white cloth must always be used. During liturgical seasons, the layer beneath the white may change to dark purple, purple, red or green. The change in the colours acts to emphasise the liturgical season or feast.