Not Just Pretty Clothes

This is my column for my church’s newsletter this month.  Superfriends and Blogofans from liturgical churches will probably find this information old news, but those of you from “low church” Protestant backgrounds (e.g. Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc.) might find this interesting.  Having come to the Presbyterian Church from an Anglican denomination, I see “high church” liturgy as one gifts that I can bring.  For a more detailed description of liturgical vestments (with pictures), visit:

Image by Gareth Hughes.  Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons
Image by Gareth Hughes. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

When people think of a Presbyterian pastor leading worship, they tend to think of someone wearing a long, black robe that looks like the kind of academic gown worn at graduations.  In fact, that’s exactly what it is.  This practice goes back to John Calvin himself, who was an educator by profession.  The academic robe (also called a Geneva gown, after the city Calvin lived in) was the socially acceptable thing for a teacher to wear in the 1500s, much like white coats for doctors and uniforms for police officers are today.  John Calvin wore his academic robe in the pulpit because he was opposed to the practice of wearing liturgical vestments like they did in the Roman Catholic Church.

Since Calvin’s time, relations between Presbyterians and Catholics have softened considerably.  Starting in the 1960s, we even began adopting each other’s worship practices.  For example, Catholics now lead mass in English and celebrate Communion while facing the congregation.  Presbyterians (and other Protestants) have been rediscovering the value of ancient and medieval forms of worship, including the weekly celebration of Communion and the wearing of liturgical vestments.

Liturgical vestments are special clothes worn by the clergy when they lead worship.  While they got their start as everyday street clothes in Roman times, they have taken on symbolic meaning over time.

First, there is the Alb.  This is a long, white robe that is a symbol of baptism.  The color white signifies the purity of a soul that has been cleansed from sin.  The sacrament of baptism is the sign of this cleansing.  Anyone who has been baptized can wear this vestment.  In Revelation 7:9, the Bible describes a heavenly scene: “I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

Second, there is the Cincture.  This is a rope belt that symbolizes the teachings of Christ.  Like the alb, anyone, ordained or lay, can wear the cincture.  After all, every Christian is supposed to follow Jesus’ teachings, right?  The cincture is a belt because we bind Christ’s teachings to our lives at all times.  It is just as Moses told the Israelites in Deuteronomy 6:6-9: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”  The cincture is a visual reminder to us that we should do the same.

Third, there is the Stole.  This is the long scarf worn by pastors and priests.  It is a sign that the person wearing it has been ordained.  In Roman times, men would wear stoles on formal occasions in the same way that men wear neckties today.  Symbolically, it stands for the yoke of ordained ministry.  For those who are unfamiliar with cattle and oxen, a yoke is a special kind of harness that goes over an ox’s neck when it pulls a cart, just like the stole goes over the pastor’s neck.  This is a reminder of the pastor’s job: to pull the cart (the church) and take it wherever the driver (Christ) directs.  The pastor is not the driver.  The church does not belong to the pastor.  The church belongs to Christ.  Christ decides where the church goes.  The pastor’s job is simply to help the church get there.  If you catch me in my office immediately before or after worship, you might see me kiss the stole as I put it on and take it off.  This traditional gesture is a way for me to remind myself to embrace my calling as the pastor of this church.

Finally, there is the Chasuble.  This poncho-like vestment is only worn when the Eucharist (Communion) is celebrated.  It symbolizes the grace (unconditional love) of God, which covers everything like a big, warm blanket.  It is worn during Communion as a reminder of Christ’s unconditional love that led him to lay down his life for others.  This is the event we remember as we share the broken body and shed blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  The word Eucharist means Thanksgiving, which is our primary response to God’s grace which has been made known to us in Christ.

More and more Presbyterians are starting to make use of these traditional liturgical vestments in worship.  I am sharing their symbolic meaning with you so that you can fully appreciate and enter into the spiritual truths they convey.  Our worship is not simply a matter of thoughts and words.  We bring our whole selves, body and soul, into church.  Sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell all play a part in our service.

I pray that your knowledge of these visual symbols in the special clothes I wear on Sunday will enrich your worship experience and make the presence of God more real to you as we render our reverence to God.

Be blessed and be a blessing!


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