This is the time of year when people, young and old, dress up in costumes for trick-or-treating and Halloween parties. For this reason, I thought it opportune to write about liturgical vestments and the significance of the garments that the priest wears for liturgy. It’s important to note, however, that there is a fundamental difference between a costume and priestly vestments, which hopefully this article will help to make clear.
The first sacred vestment the priest puts on in preparation for Mass is the alb, which is a white garment that covers him from the neck to his ankles, tied at the waist by a cord called a cincture. This is the priest’s baptismal garment. At their baptisms, children (and adults) will be given a white garment, which makes visible the invisible reality of the change that they’ve undergone. By baptism they have become a new creation, with Original Sin taken away, and their souls filled with the life of God as members of the Church. The priest wears the alb as an indication that he is a member of the faithful, born anew through the waters of baptism and claimed for Christ.
Over the white alb, the priest will wear two colored vestments – a stole around his neck and a chasuble, the sleeveless outer garment. The color of the stole and chasuble changes with liturgical seasons and festive celebrations. They may be green, violet, rose, red, white, gold, or black, depending on the occasion. The chasuble is the vestment properly associated with the priest, and it reveals him to be configured sacramentally to Christ the High Priest through his reception of Holy Orders. In ancient Israel, before entering the Temple, the High Priest would wear a similar liturgical garment, an ephod, that was made of four different kinds of threads – white linen thread woven together with woolen threads dyed red, blue, and purple. These four threads symbolized the four basic elements of Creation: air, water, fire, and earth. He also wore a golden breastplate decorated with 12 precious stones engraved with the names of the 12 tribes of Israel. The High Priest was thus vesting himself in all of Creation, including the Chosen People, and bringing it with him into the holy place of the Lord God.
The vestments we use for Mass work in a similar way. Christ Jesus is the eternal High Priest who intercedes forever on our behalf at the right hand of God the Father. The priest is His ordained minister who stands in His place at Mass. As the visible representative of Christ the High Priest, the vestments he wears at Mass aid us in our sensible experience of that reality. The chasuble is often embroidered with a flowered pattern, with gold or silver colored thread reminiscent of the light of the sun and the moon. It represents the vesture of Creation, brought to its glorious fulfillment, worn by the glorified Christ in Heaven.
And so, we see the difference between a costume and priestly vestments. A costume is something that one puts on as a way of pretending to be something or someone else. Rather than hide or change his identity, priestly vestments, worn within liturgy, serve to reveal more fully the priest’s most essential identity. Like a well-designed church building, sacred art, and sacred music, the priest’s vestments help us to understand and experience the reality of what we do at Mass and what we are as the Church.