Episode 2: Why do they wear all those strange clothes at Mass?
Short answer: they have to wear something. Long answer: the clothes, or as they are usually called, vestments, come from the long history of the Church. They are a visible sign of unity with all those who have gone before us and all those who will come after us. They are full of rich symbolism. Why not wear modern clothes instead of weird ancient clothes? For one reason, today’s modern clothes will become weird old-fashioned clothes in about ten years. For a second reason, it is a reminder that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
Before the changes in the Mass in the 1960’s, the things that priests wore at Mass were all very strictly defined. Now, in the Latin Rite of the Church, some are required, some are optional and a lot of priests leave out even the ones that aren’t optional. In the Eastern rites of the Church, the vestments are still governed by very strict rules.
A priest is supposed to begin with the washing of the hands, a custom that goes back to the Israelites in the temple and that the Jews still practice. As he washes his hands he says “Give virtue to my hands, O Lord, that being cleansed from all stain I might serve you with purity of mind and body.”
The first thing a priest puts on is called an amice. Not many priests wear it anymore, but it is not optional. Its purpose is to cover the modern collar and clothing a priest or deacon wears. When we say Mass, we are symbolically entering a different space and time, so we cover our regular clothes. Also, the amice keeps the alb and chasuble clean. We more enthusiastic preachers can get a little bit sweaty in the course of a hell fire and brimstone sermon. The amice protects the vestments. The amice is a large square of cloth with strings at two of the corners that tie the amice in place. The priest kisses it, places it over his head and then on his shoulders while he says a prayer, “Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.” The amice symbolizes the helmet of salvation (Ephesians 6:17). When the priest and the deacon go to the altar they are going to war with the forces of darkness. The amice reminds them of that.
Second, over this he puts on a long white robe, called an alb (Latin for, you guessed it, “white robe”). It was standard wear at the time of Christ and was the common outfit of the ancient world, a long tunic with loose sleeves. Jews often wear a similar alb at certain services. It’s supposed to be worn only by the priests and deacons. It is white in order to symbolize the white robe that all of us received at baptism. It is a symbol of sanctifying grace and the purity of heart that the Christian strives for. According to the book of Revelation 7:14, the saints wear long white robes that were made white in the blood of the Lamb. The priest or deacon says a prayer while putting on the white robe. (Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward).
Third, a priest puts on an ancient Roman belt, which is nothing more than a rope. It’s called a cincture. The knot with which it is traditionally tied can be seen on ancient Roman statues. It represents self control, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). A prayer from the first Letter of Peter (1:13) is said when a priest puts on the cincture (Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me). Good prayer. Good reminder.
Fourth and next is something called a maniple. It is not used much anymore, but it has a beautiful symbolism. It is thought to have derived from an ancient style of kerchief that the Romans wore on their left arm. It was used to wipe away tears or sweat and came to be a symbol of the pastoral work of the priesthood. I have also heard that it represented the ropes that are sometimes shown that bound the Lord to the cross in addition to the nails that sometimes sees in old pictures of the crucifixion. The maniple symbolizes that the priest is bound to Christ at Mass, just as Christ was bound. When a priest went to the pulpit to preach, he took off the maniple and left it on the altar. In the Mass the priest represents Christ. He takes off the maniple to show that the Mass is Christ. The sermon is the priest. Perhaps it would be a good thing to bring back a more common use of the maniple to remind us clergy that we are not individually infallible. The prayer said while putting on the maniple is “May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow in order that I may joyfully reap the reward of my labors.”
Then fifth, the priest and the deacon put on a stole over the amice alb and cincture while saying a prayer (Lord, restore the stole of immortality, which I lost through the collusion of our first parents, and, unworthy as I am to approach Thy sacred mysteries, may I yet gain eternal joy). The stole probably comes from scarf or sash of office worn by ancient Roman official. It was kind of ancient Roman sergeant stripes. It also may have ties to the ancient Israelite prayer shawl and the towel that Jesus wore to wash the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper. The priest wears it one way and the deacon another way to symbolize their different roles in the Church and the Liturgy. The priest stands in for Christ which is why his stole is thought to represent the towel with which Christ washed the disciples’ feet. The congregation is the Bride, the Body of Christ symbolically clothed in the white robe of baptism, and the deacon? Very interestingly, in the Eastern Church the deacon’s stole is worn outside his topmost garment, the dalmatic. It is rearranged just before Holy Communion to represent the wings of the angels, so at Mass you have the Lord, the Bride and the Angels represented by the priest the deacon and the congregation.
Sixth, over all this the deacon and the priest wear an outer garment in the Latin Church. The priest wears a chasuble; from the Latin word “casula” the word means the little house. It is in fact an ancient Roman overcoat. Originally it was a semicircular piece of cloth sewn up the front which reaches down almost to the feet on all sides. It makes it really hard to lift the arms or even to move. That’s part of the symbolism. Love covers a multitude. (1Peter4:8.) It represents the sacrificial love that a pastor should have for his flock. Over the years the sides have been trimmed back for the Latin Church and the front has been trimmed off for the Eastern Church. The priest or bishop says this prayer when putting on the chasuble: “O Lord, who has said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light,’ grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.”
The deacon wears a dalmatic, which is fascinating garment. It is a tunic with wide sleeves. I was always taught that it freed up the arms so the deacon could lift things and so was symbolic of the deacon role of service, having sleeves already “rolled up for work”. There is more to it than that. The dalmatic was an upper class garment. The emperor wore one. The first to wear it were probably not deacons, but bishops, and bishops still wear a dalmatic for certain occasions. They wear it under the chasuble. This is an important symbol. The priest wears a chasuble, the garment of pastoral love; the deacon wears the dalmatic, the garment of pastoral service.
Everyone thinks of the Church as a kind of military chain of command. It isn’t. The Church is meant to be a family. The deacon doesn’t answer to the priest who in turn answers to the bishop. The deacon is the assistant to the bishop in his ministry of service and the priest is the assistant to the bishop in his ministry of sacrificial love. The bishop is thus the head deacon and, at the same time, the head elder (presbyter and priest mean the same thing.) The dalmatic ties the ministry of the deacon to the bishop whose servant ministry is like that of the angels. Both the bishop and the deacon say this prayer when putting on the dalmatic “Lord, endow me with the garment of salvation, the vestment of joy, and with the dalmatic of justice ever encompass me.”
All this is going on just in getting ready for Mass. So why do we do it? Lots of reasons. For one thing the Bible tells us to, “Worship the Lord in holy attire.” (Psalm 96:2) This is also translated as “Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.” When we go to Mass, we leave time and space. The clothes the minister wears are not just a good show. They remind us that we are in a time that was long ago and a time that is yet to come. We are eternal.
But the hats? What about the hats?
Next week: Smells and Bells and Funny hats!