Christ is risen! The Great Fifty Days of Easter is underway. I am grateful for the beautiful Holy Week and Easter day that we celebrated together. During that time, I had three separate conversations with folks about vestments, particularly, the fancy looking cape thing that I wore on Palm Sunday and for the Easter Vigil. In church-nerd speak, that thing is called a “cope.” It comes from the same family of Latin words from which we get the words cape, cloak, chapel, chaplain, and a Capella. In response to these conversations and questions I am going to use a few of my “Notes” to explore the meaning and purpose of the vestments that we use in our worship. I will get back to the cope, but for the sake of clarity I want to begin at the beginning: what are vestments, why do we bother with them, and from where did they come?
Simply put, vestments are garments intended specifically for use in the Church’s liturgy. Their use ultimately derives from the worship of ancient Israel (take a look at Exodus 28 for a fascinating description of Israel’s priestly garments). Their almost universal use in churches, and in some cases the shape and form of the garments themselves, dates back to at least the 4thcentury (have you noticed that a lot of churchy things date back to the 4thcentury?), although they have undergone a lot of development over the years. Today, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and some Methodists and Baptists use some form of vestment. The question is, why?
I’ll discuss two interlocking reasons for the use of vestments in worship. The first is beauty. Our neighbor, Beth El/Beth Hillel on Remington Road has a beautiful rendering of Psalm 96:9 on their wall. It is a verse that has guided the imagination of many Christian traditions as well, it says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Holiness, which means the condition of being set apart for use by God, is beautiful in all its forms. God has set apart each and every Christian to be God’s agents of reconciliation, to be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, and to worship and honor the glory of God. Just as holiness is beautiful, so should beauty point us toward holiness, and toward our Creator. This orientation toward God is also the purpose of worship. Worship, then, should also be beautiful. A lot of what we do in our worship is done with the intention of being beautiful. I believe that God loves and revels in beauty. Just take a look at the natural world. Also (duh), beauty is attractive to our fellow humans, and thus beauty has a role in evangelism. So, beautiful worship is discipleship (orienting us toward God), evangelism (attracting others to the faith), and most importantly, pleasing to God. Beauty is why we have stained glass windows, it’s why we have a good organ instead of collection of kazoos. It’s also a big part of why we have vestments.
The other main reason we have vestments is more important, though. This reason is also present in that verse from the Psalms: holiness. Try not to think about this in terms of morality, i.e. whether someone who is holy is “better” than anyone else in a moral sense. That isn’t what holiness is about. Holiness simply means set apart. In the case of humans, it is something done to us, not something we do. Therefore, holiness does not signify worth or goodness, and is certainly not something to brag about. We do use this word a little differently in reference to God, but that’s a topic for another day.
As I said, all Christians are set apart; made holy by virtue of our baptism into the life and body of Christ. Scripture puts it this way: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). All Christians are priests. Vocational priests and other ministers are called and ordained (set apart) merely as symbols and tokens of that fact.
Priests, deacons, and bishops wear vestments in that capacity, as symbols and signs of the priesthood of all Christians. Vestments are not about setting the minister apart from the congregation in some qualitative sense. They’re not just meant to be fancy clothes in order to make me feel fancy. Rather, vestments are symbolic of the fact that liturgy itself is a time, place, and activity which are set apart, demarcated from other time and other activities. Liturgy, the worship of the church, is special. It is holy. The priest is a symbol for the whole people of God, and vestments are symbols of the set apart-ness of the activity that we come together to complete on Sunday mornings (and other times!).
For me personally, vestments are practical. There is a ritual to putting on vestments. There are particular prayers prayed as the different garments are put on (the prayers are posted on the wall of the vesting sacristy). Putting on the vestments is how I “put my game face on.” It is how I prepare for worship; how I remove myself from my other roles and identities and forget my own cares and worries. They are a tangible way of assuming my liturgical role as a symbol of God’s people, and—only by the working of the Holy Spirit—a conduit of God’s grace. Vestments, then, are an important part of my spirituality and help me to do things that I have been called here to do.
So, that’s why we have vestments in the first place. In future weeks, I will discuss a little bit about the symbolism and history of particular vestments—including that fancy cape thing I was wearing the other day.