This is the second part of a series of “Notes” about the meaning and purpose of vestments. Last week I gave an overview of the topic, and a general theological statement about vestments. Next, I will explore specific garments, starting from the inside and working out. One thing to note: this stuff has tradition behind it, but, while many people (God forbid I include myself here) can get sort of fussy about vestments, there are no official guidelines in the Episcopal church or instructions in the Book of Common Prayer about vestments.
The first robe I normally wear on Sunday is not, properly speaking, a vestment. It is a long black robe called a cassock, which used to be “street wear” for clerics rather than a garment set apart for worship. The cassock was meant for everyday use. This can be illustrated by the BBC series “Father Brown Mysteries” based on the mystery stories of G. K. Chesterton, featuring Mark Williams as the eponymous sleuthing priest. Father Brown is almost never seen without his cassock on. He even rides countryside on his bicycle wearing it. These days, the everyday wear of clergy people, known as “clericals,” is more commonly the black shirt with a white collar. More often than not, I only wear my cassock on Sunday mornings. For me, it serves the purpose of setting Sunday and Sunday worship apart as something out of the ordinary.
What’s worn over the cassock is much more important. The robe worn over the cassock is called an alb, which is short for the Latin word, albus, which means “white” (an etymology which might be significant for fans of the Harry Potterseries, written by an Anglican lay woman by the name of J.K. Rowling). The alb derives from the everyday clothing of ancient Rome. Originally it was similar to the Greek toga. It is a garment not limited only to priests, deacons, and bishops. Anybody serving in the liturgy may wear an alb, or a similar garment (I’ll get to similar garments in a moment). This is because, first and foremost, the alb signifies the ministry of all the baptized. In the 4thcentury (here we go again), a pilgrim named Egeria travelled to Jerusalem and observed the Easter ceremonies of the Church in Jerusalem. During the Easter Vigil, Egeria observed a number of baptisms of adults (infant baptism was not very common in the early centuries of the church). Those to be baptized were separated by gender, and they disrobed before they were baptized by full-immersion. When they came out of the water they were given an alb to put on to signify that their sins had been washed away, and they were now forgiven participants in the risen life of Christ. So, in one sense, the alb signifies the state and ministry of all the baptized.
In Revelation 7:14, the author sees a vision of a great multitude of people from every people group and nation, standing before the throne of God in heaven holding palm branches. They are all wearing albs, and the author is told their robes are white because they have washed them in the blood of the Lamb, who is Christ himself. All these white-robed saints had experienced persecution and martyrdom. On several occasions, our liturgy refers to the white-robed army of martyrs. This is the origin of that reference. So, the alb signifies the state and ministry of the baptized, and also the purity and faithfulness of those whose commitment to Christ extends even unto death and beyond. I am reminded of these symbolic meanings every time I put on my alb with this prayer: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, and cleanse from me all stains of sin; that, with those who have made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb, I may have grace to attain to everlasting happiness.”
A local, northern European variation of the alb, called the surplice is another white garment that I sometimes where. The surplice is cut differently than the alb, with a wider neck, and reallybig sleeves. It is not worn with a cincture (robe around the waist). Over time, the usage of the alb versus the surplice was differentiated so that, a surplice is generally worn by those who are not actually celebrating the Eucharist (clergy or lay), and for services such as Morning Prayer where Eucharist is not to be celebrated at all. It is part of what is known as “choir dress,” vestments for worship other than Eucharistic worship. On Sundays when we have guest clergy who are not leading us in the Eucharistic prayer, you will notice they will wear either an alb and stole (I’ll talk about the stole next week), or a cassock, surplice, and stole. The priest leading the Eucharistic prayer will wear a chasuble over his or her alb and stole. This usage, of course, is not universal.