by Father Mike Stubbs
The altar society has stood out as an important feature in American parishes for many years. It derives its name from its original purpose: to care for the altar in the parish church.
To carry that out, its members would wash the altar linens, adorn the altar with flowers, and clean the church. Besides these tasks, the altar society would often undertake other projects in the parish. For example, its members would frequently provide a dinner after a funeral.
With more women working outside the home, it has become for difficult for them to participate in some of the traditional activities of the altar society.
In some parishes, the altar society has virtually disappeared, with its former duties assigned to new parish groups. A parish bereavement committee might organize the funeral dinner. The art and environment committee might take care of decorating the church. In many cases, the same ministries continue on; they are just structured in a different way.
During the lifetime of Jesus, an altar society of sorts existed to assist him in his ministry. A group of women followed him as disciples. Now, they did not adopt the name “altar society” or operate under any bylaws. At the same time, they functioned in many ways similar to the modern altar society:
“Accompanying him (Jesus) were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities; Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources” (Lk 8:2-3).
It should not surprise us then, that after Jesus’ death, the “altar society” should show up at his tomb. The women wished to set all in order, to supply that which was omitted from his hasty burial a few days earlier. We hear about it in the Gospel reading for the Easter Vigil, which is also an option for Easter Sunday morning, Lk 24:1-12.
Specifically, the women have brought spices to anoint the body of Jesus. But when they arrive at the tomb, they discover that it is empty. They hear the good news that Jesus is risen from the dead.
Naturally, they rush back to tell the apostles: “But their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.” After all, the law courts did not ordinarily accept the testimony of women as valid. They traditionally viewed women, along with children, the deaf, the blind, and relatives of the accused as unreliable witnesses. Why should the apostles think otherwise?
Yet Peter, even if he does not immediately believe the women, at least wishes to check out their story. He decides to visit the tomb himself: “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb, bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone; then he went home amazed at what had happened.”
Peter’s amazement at what he saw does not necessarily mean that he now believes that Jesus is risen from the dead. But he is on the way there. His willingness to listen to the women is his first step toward faith in the risen Christ.
The moral of the story: The next time the altar society women tell you something, pay attention.