Distinctive robes, called “vestments” are worn for the celebration of the Church’s chief service, the Holy Eucharist. These may be just a surplice and stole worn over a cassock, but more generally, the priest presiding at the Holy Communion wears the Eucharistic vestments, each item with its own particular significance. But why special robes for this service?
• First, they link us back through the centuries to the time of Jesus himself, for these vestments have their origin in the every-day garments of the first century. As such they link us to Jesus himself who instituted this sacrament, telling us to “Do this.”
• Secondly, they link us with the world wide church, for these vestments are used by some 80% of the world’s Christians – Roman Catholics, Orthodox Churches, Lutheran Churches and others too as well as in Anglican churches. They mark us as belonging to the “catholic church” we confess in the Creed – the universal, world-wide fellowship of Christians.
• Thirdly, each of the items has its own symbolism, and you will find these referred to in the section below.
• Lastly, special robes for a special service. They mark out the service of Holy Communion as different from the ordinary events of life. We like to think of the Communion as a simple meal, but that is not the teaching we have from Jesus and from Paul and other sources. The use of vestments mark out this service as something special, unique, mysterious, a meeting of heaven and earth. They add solemnity and dignity to the service which are appropriate to the worship of God.
The most basic vestment is the alb (from the Latin word for “white,” which colour it is). It is a full-length robe with long sleeves. It is the oldest Christian vestment, derived from the ordinary every day garment of New Testament times. From early times, the newly baptised were robed in a white garment as they emerged from baptism, a sign of sin washed away and a new life in Christ. The alb is worn for celebrations of the Eucharist. When worn by the presiding minister at the Eucharist, a stole and chasuble may be worn over it. Without the stole it may be worn by those assisting at the Eucharist.
The amice is a linen cloth worn around the neck over the cassock beneath the alb, but large enough to cover the head. The origins lie in the everyday headwear of the time of Jesus, a white shawl or hood to protect the head from the sun. These days it is often attached to the alb like a hood. Symbolically it recalls St Paul’s “helmet of salvation”, a part of the Christian’s spiritual armour. (Ephesians 6:17)
The alb may be tied at the waist by a woven white cord called a cincture, and is a reminder to the priest that he is tied in obedience to Christ his Lord.
The stole is a long band of fabric worn around the neck by clergy as a sign of ordination. It has its origins in the “prayer shawl” worn in synagogue worship. It is presented during the ordination service. Stoles are worn in the colour of the day, over the alb by ordained ministers. It is a symbol of the yoke of obedience to Christ (see Matthew 11:28-30 “Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”)
Finally, the chasuble is the principal vestment of the presiding minister at the Eucharist. It is a very full vestment, in the appointed colour of the church year, and is worn like a poncho over the alb and stole. The name comes from the Latin “casula”, meaning “little house” – covering the body of the priest hiding his/her personality and emphasising his/her office and ministry as a priest. It has its origins in the outer garment worn at the time of Jesus, referred to in John 19:23-24 for which the soldiers cast lots – the robe, woven from the centre without seam, which the mother would weave for her son on reaching maturity.
These are the basic and traditional vestments. Whether the norm is to use only the simpler ones, or the full vestments for celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, no overriding importance attaches to this choice. The services and Sacraments of the Church are entirely valid and efficacious in any case; indeed they would be so even if no vestments at all were worn. Yet the use of these robes for the reasons given at the beginning of this article have their place in helping us to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” (Psalm 29:2)