Advent devotion: Linens
The essential element of baptism is water, poured out as grace. But nobody, baby or grown up, wants water dripping down the bridge of their nose. So out of necessity, we have on hand at baptisms these small little cloths, ready to dry off a forehead and add a bit of comfort to a disorienting experience. You can find sweet little baptism napkins from any religious supply store, mass produced and starchy. But here at St. Paul, these useful and beautiful cloths given at baptism, have a history full of all kinds of blessings.
These napkins began as tablecloths or dinner napkins, gracing the tables of St. Paul people, many of whom are now sainted. They were essential parts of households when Sunday supper was served with fancy china, on a big dining table and a linen tablecloth. And then these dear linens were passed on from generation to generation, mostly unused by younger family members. So when a call went out for donations of white table linens and napkins, my office was filled with beautiful things. I wasn’t given only lovely fabric, I heard stories of meals shared, of perfect dinner settings, and family time together. The fabric was blessed first by its original use, dinners and meals and love shared at a table.
For many years one woman from St. Paul would transform these table linens into hand-embroidered baptism napkins. They were hemmed and embroidered, washed and pressed, by mostly by one set of loving hands. But after Jo’s husband died and she moved across the country to be with her son, our stash of napkins quickly dwindled. We needed reinforcements.
On a Thursday afternoon a few weeks ago, about a dozen people gathered in the library commons for a baptism napkin making workshop. Some people were brand new to embroidering, so Terre Klipsch and Sheila Mesick (teachers and artists) helped to show them the ropes (or threads!). Others picked right up to start sewing. Together we talked and stitched. New friendships were formed and community was built, all around these tiny napkins. The KnitWits came over to stitch with us and the commons was filled with laughter, new connections, and togetherness.
Now our little box in a drawer behind the sanctuary is filled to the brim with napkins ready to dry off the foreheads of a baby or adult. This is when they are blessed the third time, used in that most holy moment of grace, to soak up the water that carries this sign of God’s love for us. And then it goes home, stuffed into a diaper bag or folded carefully to be stored next to the candle. It may be pulled out, or placed in a scrapbook, or used again. But it’s theirs, to remember those promises of grace and the community of saints that surrounds them.
It would be easy to just buy a box of napkins and avoid this complicated process. But it’s worth it, because in making those napkins, community is built, stories are shared, and we are all blessed in countless ways.
Sara Olson-Smith is an associate pastor at St. Paul.