In this on-going (never-ending?) series on garments for worship (AKA vestments), we have in the fourth week come to the two items that are most properly called vestments in the first place: the stole and the chasuble.
The stole is the long, scarf-like thing that is worn draped around the neck. If the wearer is a deacon the stole is worn fastened to one side like a sash. If s/he is a bishop they wear the stole draped down the front. A priest wears the stole the same way, or sometimes they will cross the stole in front to differentiate themselves from the higher office of bishop. Along with the chasuble, the stole usually matches the color of the liturgical season. Right now, for the Easter season, it is white.
The stole’s exact origins are shrouded in the mists of time. It may be related to pre-Christian religious garments in southern Europe. It has often been compared to the priestly ephod in the worship of the ancient Israelites and the prayer shawls of modern-day Judaism. It is likely related to garments given to magistrates and other public officials in the Roman Empire to denote their office. This function seems to relate to the fact that the way a clergy person wears the stole tells you something about their office (a deacon, or a bishop or a priest).
Whatever the historical development, I find the deepest significance of the stole in the story of Last Supper. As we celebrate on Maundy Thursday, this is the night that Jesus put an apron or towel around himself and stooped to wash his disciple’s feet. The stole represents that towel. So, even as the stole functions as a distinctive mark of the office of a clergy person, it is also always a symbol of servanthood. As Jesus told his disciple at the table, if any one wants to be a leader, they must be a servant of all (Matthew 20:26). I generally wear a stole anytime I am doing something sacramental like consecrating the Eucharist, anointing the sick with oil, baptizing someone, or blessing a marriage.
On top of the stole, a priest who is going to celebrate Eucharist may wear a chasuble. The chasuble is sometimes called theEucharistic vestment, because it is only worn for the purpose of Eucharistic celebration. Let’s face it, the chasuble is a fancy poncho. It’s a direct descendent of the outer cloaks worn in the Roman Empire in the 4thcentury. Back then, these cloaks were worn by everyone. As fashions changed in the early middle ages, bishops and priests alone held onto the chasuble, and it became the main garment used for the liturgy.
Like the rest, the chasuble has accrued a symbolic meaning. This can be seen from the traditional prayer for putting on the chasuble, which in its original Latin dates to the middle ages: “O Lord who hast said, ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’: enable me so to bear that I may attain to thy favor and abide in thy love.” This prayer quotes Matthew 11:29-30: “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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” In placing the chasuble around my neck as a yoke around the neck of an oxen, it reminds me of this promise of Jesus, which finds its counterpart and fulfillment in a commandment: “take up your cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24).
To be clear, it is not just the priest who is meant to take up Jesus’ yoke, and carry his cross. This is for all of us. Remember, the chasuble is a Eucharistic vestment, and at the Eucharist the priest is a symbol and a stand-in for the whole gathered community. It’s not me as an individual up there, but all of us offering our gifts of wine and bread, of thanksgiving and praise to God, and receiving those gifts back from God, broken open, transformed, overflowing with grace that is the balm of all who are weary and heavy-laden. This whole operation only makes sense when we’ve all yoked ourselves to Jesus, when we’ve all gathered ourselves underneath the saving health of the cross. All these vestments are meant to help us participate aesthetically and symbolically in these truths. Next week I will finish this exploration of vestments by talking about a few odds and ends.