I was never on the Altar Guild.  For one thing, when I was younger I went to a non-liturgical church that  didn't use words like altar and didn't have people setting things up other than flowers on Sunday mornings.  For another thing, when I did become an Episcopalian, I didn't know enough about any of the preparations to be part of something like the altar guild.  I imagined it a closed group of people who knew everything already.

Now, I rely greatly on the altar guild, especially since I am usually celebrating in a church as a guest, but I also had to learn, as part of my seminary training, all about what the altar guild does.  Both because I may well need to do those things myself at some point, and also, as my supervisor liked to put it, it might turn out that the day after you begin work in your parish, the one woman who always did all the altar guild stuff would fall over dead, and nobody would know what to do next, and it would be your job to teach them.  This was the standard what-if kind of line; I don't know anyone who actually ever encountered such a situation.  But we dutifully learned.

As a seminarian, we all took turns doing the altar guild jobs.  Washing and ironing linens, lighting the charcoal for the thurible, baking bread and putting out the linens and the cruets and the patens, remembering to also set out  the lavabo bowl, marking the books, washing up the chalice and emptying out the ashes and putting away the vestments.  We learned the right way to fold things and we also learned about preparing the altar for worship and we also learned about how important it is to have someone to do the preparation.  We learned to be relied upon even as we would later rely on others.

And still as a priest, I like to get to church early and go into the quiet (maybe even with the lights off) nave and check to make sure things are where they are supposed to be.  To check the books and make sure they are marked, to check to see if there are bulletins out, to check to see about bread and wine.  I like being in the empty church before anybody gets there and to quietly go about making sure things are where they are supposed to be.  There is something comforting in that and also something about the work that just feels holy - preparing the sanctuary for worship.

Now days somebody else almost always gets there before I do and does that checking and preparing.  Which is good because others obviously find the work meaningful as well.  They are the ones who know they are being relied upon and who are therefore reliable.  All of the people I've ever talked with about altar guild assure me that they feel it is a calling.  (Occasionally, someone confesses that they feel that they themselves might not have been called to that particular ministry but they do it anyway because they know it needs to be done.)  

But every now and then I still get to wander quietly into the sacristy, to pour wine into cruets, to smooth linens, to smell the beeswax, to look out over the now empty seats and imagine them full of people who will gather together later, happily oblivious that someone else got there early to smooth and polish and pour.  To God be the glory.