Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mass Vestments: Usage and Origin

When someone who is unfamiliar with Catholicism walks into a Catholic Church one of the very first things that they are likely to notice is the lavish ornamentation of the Church.  In the East they would notice thousands of beautiful Icons written with bright colors and gold and silver leaf. In the West they would see statues and dramatic paintings of saints and angels. Once a liturgy begins they may notice that the clergy and servers are wearing ornately decorated and embroidered vestments. What   many people, both Catholic and protestant, fail to understand is that everything in the Church has a purpose. From each individual vestment that the ministers put on to the color of the fabric, to the moment that the ministers move the books on the altar, every article, item, symbol, and gesture in the liturgy has a meaning and a purpose. Today we will be going over the individual vestments of the ministers in the Western churches, their origin, and their purposes.

The outermost garment of the Priest, called a Chasuble, is the last one to be put on and will most often cover all of the other vestments. Its origin is the Casula, or “little house” which was a full, bell shaped cloak for traveling. The Chasuble has been retained as a symbol of Charity, and the yoke of unselfish service for the Lord which is imposed upon the Priest at his ordination. For this reason the Chasuble should properly supersede, and cover all others. The Chasuble is also often understood to represent the “seamless garment” of Christ. The Chasuble may take many forms, from the small and ornately decorated Roman style which developed in the 18th century, often called a Fiddleback on account of its shape, to the ample cut Conical and Gothic styles which originate in much earlier periods. In the Eastern Churches the equivalent vestment is the Phelonian.

In the place of the Chasuble, Deacons and Subdeacons at Mass wear what are known as the Dalmatic and Tunicle (respectively). The Dalmatic is a calf length tunic made of fabric matching the Priest’s Chasuble which originates from Dalmatia, a province of Greece. The Tunicle is typically a bit shorter and derives its name from its shape simply as a tunic. Both the Deacon and Subdeacon wear all of the same vestments beneath the Dalmatic or Tunicle as the Priest, with the exception that the Subdeacon omits the use of the Stole. The Bishop may also wear the Dalmatic beneath the Chasuble, as the Bishop has received the fullness of the Priesthood. In the East a Bishop will properly wear an entirely different vestment, similar in appearance to the Dalmatic, called a Sakkos.

Beneath the Chasuble is worn the Stole, a long strip of fabric worn about the neck. For Priests the stole should be crossed or secured in the front. For a Bishop the Stole may hang free. For a Deacon the stole is properly worn over the left shoulder, pulled across the chest and joined at the right hip. The Stole is the symbol of authority, originating from the scarf worn by magistrates in the Roman Empire. The Stole is properly worn at any rite, office, or liturgical function. In the Eastern Churches the equivalent vestment for priests is the Epitrachelion. For Deacons and Subdeacons the corresponding vestment is the Orarion. 

Less common in modern use is the Maniple. Constructed similarly to the Stole, the Maniple is a band of cloth worn over the left forearm. Originating as a towel or handkerchief the Maniple symbolizes the labor and hardships that result from being in the service of Christ. In the Eastern Churches the ministers wear a pair of liturgical cuffs, which serve a similar function to the Maniple.

Worn around the waist is the Cincture, or Girdle. Its origin being a belt to gird the garments worn underneath it, the Cincture has come to symbolize the chastity and continence of the minister. In some places the Cincture may take the form of an ornate or decorative belt, however it is most commonly seen in the form of a simple cord or rope with knots or tassels at the ends. In the Eastern Churches the Cincture is called a Zone and is typically more similar to the ornate belt form instead of a simple cord.

Beneath the previous vestments is worn an ankle length white robe called an Alb. The Alb is a symbol of innocence and purity. The name comes from the Latin word albus, which means white. Any baptized Christian may wear the Alb, as it is also the garment of Baptism. This is why in many parishes you will find lay readers and assistants wearing the Alb. The Alb is typically a plain linen or cotton robe but occasionally it may be adorned with embroidery, appareling, or lace. In some places the Alb may be made partially or entirely of lace. In the Eastern Churches the Sticharion takes the place of the Alb.

Beneath the Alb should be worn an Amice. The Amice consists of a square or rectangle of linen and has strings or ties so that it can be wrapped around the body and tied in place. It represents the Helmet of Salvation and originally took the form of a hood similar to the hood or arming cap worn by a soldier beneath the helmet. Like the Maniple, the Amice has widely fallen into disuse however in recent years it has seen resurgence among traditionalists.

These vestments serve many purposes within the Church. Vestments are traditionally very ornate. They glorify Christ’s presence as the Lord and King. Through Apostolic Succession the Priest, when before the Altar of God, stands and acts in the place of Christ (in Persona Christi) and reenter into the sacrifice of Christ’s Body and Blood. As Christ offered bread and wine to the Father and consecrated them to become His Body and Blood, the Priest at the Mass stands in His place offering bread and wine consecrating them into the same Blood and Body of Jesus. In addition to honoring and glorifying Christ’s presence, the use of vestments removes the focus from the Priest himself, instead to the actions in which he is engaging. They remove the temptation to view the priest as an individual and reinforce that, at least during the Mass, he is acting in Persona Christi.

While all vestments are not an essential part of Christian worship, they play a very important role in maintaining the things which are essential. Vestments perpetually remind us of the real reason that we worship; that is to seek and to serve Christ.

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