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February 12, 2016, 12:00 AM

What are Those Robes You Wear in Worship?

 

For my inaugural blog post, I wanted to respond to a question a few people have asked me—“what are all those robes you wear in worship and why do you wear them?” 

First, some general terms, the robes are more formally called “vestments” (not to be confused with “paraments,” which are the fabric coverings in the color of the day for the altar, pulpit, and lectern—if there is one).  Vestments are kind of like uniforms for worship.  If you know what the different pieces mean, they identify the role of the individual wearing it in worship.  A vested individual in worship has some leadership roll—anything from preaching and/or presiding at a sacrament, to reading singing or carrying specific items in worship.  These vestments carry on centuries of tradition within the church, and in their structure and design can communicate the theology of the church. 

Not all congregations use them or use them consistently.  Since the liturgical renewal movement in the 1960’s more protestant congregations have returned to using some vestments that were less commonly used (often simply because of cost, or because of association with other denominations).  From a Lutheran perspective, there is no mandate to use or not use certain garments.  It is a decision usually left to the leaders within the church, and more often than not, the access the church has to such vestments, which are often custom artistic creations, and thus can be quite expensive to acquire.   

So, what are the most common vestments, and what do they symbolize?

The alb is a white, full length robe that derives from the white baptismal garment.  It symbolizes purity, light and the resurrection (recall Matthew 28:3 and the description of the angel at the tomb: “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow” (NRSV)).  Albs also have a connection to the white tunic worn in the Greco-Roman world and were worn by clergy until the 11th century when the surplice (see below) became the principle vestment for worship leaders for daily worship.

The stole is a long band of fabric worn by clergy as a sign of ordination.  It is symbolic of the yoke of obedience to Christ (See Matthew 11: 29 “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (NRSV)).  It is placed upon a pastor’s shoulders at ordination, and has been worn regularly since the eighth century.  Stoles are worn in the color of the day, over the alb by ordained ministers.  Traditions that ordain deacons often distinguish between the two roles in that a deacon’s stole drapes on an angle over one shoulder and across the body.

The chasuble is the vestment worn to identify the presiding minister when Eucharist is celebrated. In Lutheran settings, you will only see one person wearing a chasuble even if there is more than one ordained pastor present.  It resembles a poncho worn over the alb and stole, and its full, flowing appearance is a reminder of the abundance of grace in Holy Communion.  It has been used since the eleventh century, but was modeled off of a traveling tunic that goes back to Greco-Roman times.  The Chasuble is sometimes worn throughout the service, in other settings, the presiding minister puts it on during the offering as worship transitions from proclamation of the Word to celebration of Holy Communion.

(Left is an image from my brother, Erik's installation service at Christ the King Lutheran Church in Cumming, GA.  He is wearing a chasuble.  Other clergy are wearing albs and stoles.  The Assistant to the Bishop on the far left is wearing a Deacon's Stole)

 

The cassock is a black full length garment with long narrow sleeves, usually buttoned in front from neck to ankle. It is not really a vestment, but rather a garment originating from the daily clothing of priests and monks in the middle ages.  From it, other uniforms have come such as a judge’s robe or the academic robes worn by professors when such roles were often filled by educated priests in Europe.  The cassock is still worn with a surplice by some clergy for daily office (Morning and Evening prayer) services.  In some traditions, monsignors, bishops and archbishops wear purple or red piping on their cassocks.

The surplice is a shorter white vestment worn over the cassock for Morning and Evening Prayer. It originated in the eleventh century as a monastic choir vestment. Originally ankle-length, the surplice has gradually become somewhat shorter (knee-length). A derivative vestment is the cotta, a white waist-length version of the surplice.

(To the right is a cassock with a surplice over it.)

There are many other vestments used in the church, but these are the ones that you will see me in most often.  I wear them to remind myself of the theology behind them, and also to remember that there is something both ancient and contemporary about them.  These vestments have helped the church tell the story of Jesus and his sacrificial love for the world for two thousand years.  Finally, I wear them for a uniquely personal reason in my case—because most of them have been gifts to me from my mother.  I design them, and she makes them.  It is one way she has passed down her faith, and her God-given gifts to me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

-Pr. Nathan

 

p.s. For more about each of these vestments, see: Worship Formation & Liturgical Resources: Frequently Asked Questions, “What are Vestments and Paraments and Why are they Used?”, from the ELCA website: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/What_are_vestments_and_paraments_Why_are_they_used.pdf

Also see, S. Anita Stauffer, Altar Guild and Sacristy Handbook, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000. Pgs. 25-34.


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