Over time, the sacred vestments accrued various interpretations. An eighth century Greek document provides a symbolism for all the priestly vestments. In the West, similar works of interpretation were written in the ninth century in Gaul (modern
). The first type of symbolism was moral: the vestments symbolized the virtues to which their wearers aspired (e.g. humility, chastity, charity). The second type, which was not very widespread, interpreted the vestments allegorically: they were the armor of the priest, a warrior of God, waging a spiritual battle at the altar. France
By the twelfth century, the vestments acquired a third, dogmatic type of symbolism: the priest is Christ’s representative, and his vestments refer to certain dogmas pertaining to Christ (e.g. the Incarnation, His two natures, His virtues, etc.). The dogmatic symbolism lacked references to His Passion and death, which first appeared in the thirteenth century in a fourth type of symbolism, which could be called “representative.” This type of symbolism became very popular because it was the easiest to express and to understand: each vestment represents something Christ wore during His Passion and death, from shroud placed over His head (the amice) to the cords used to bind Him (e.g. the cincture). The priest is thus visually configured to Christ, Whose ministry he is carrying out.
Along with these interpretations, prayers were developed for the priest to say as he put on each vestment. The vesting prayers in the Roman Rite evoke the Scriptural imagery of being dressed with the “armor of God” (Eph. 6:11) to varying degrees. The sacred vestments are meant to remind the priest (and the congregation) of the sufferings which Christ endured, because they are analogous to the garments He wore during His Passion; they also mystically signify the virtues which enable the priest to fulfill his ministry in faithfulness to God. The four types of symbolism – moral, allegorical, dogmatic, and representative – can be woven together to create a rich tapestry which can produce great spiritual fruit for the priest or layman who contemplates it.
While the modern Roman Missal contains prayers of preparation and thanksgiving for the priest, it does not currently contain these vesting prayers. I think the whole Church (and especially her ordained ministers) would benefit from the use of these prayers, and if their inclusion in this book contributes to a resurgence of their use, then thanks be to God!