Excerpt: Vestments

Posted by Jeffrey Pinyan at 11:26 PM

The Old Testament describes the liturgical worship of God carried out by Israel, and liturgical worship did not disappear with the inception of the new covenant in Christ’s blood.  In fact, St. John’s apocalyptic vision of the heavenly liturgy describes Jesus dressed in priestly attire standing in the midst of priestly furnishings, a sign of continuity between the Old and New Covenants:  “Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle round his breast.” (Rev. 1:12-13)  Jesus is also seen wearing a golden crown. (cf. Rev. 14:14)  God is seated on a heavenly throne appearing “like jasper and carnelian” and surrounded by “twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads.” (Rev. 4:3-4)  At the end of the book of Revelation, John sees the new city of Jerusalem descending from Heaven and he identifies twelve particular stones which adorn its walls. (cf. Rev. 21:10, 19-20)
All of these details are related to the worship of God as carried out by Israel before the Temple was destroyed in AD 70.  God commanded Moses to have holy garments made for Aaron (the high priest) and his sons (the other priests): “a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a coat of checker work, a turban, and a girdle.” (Ex. 28:4)  On the turban was set a golden crown. (cf. Ex. 29:6)  The Israelites were also to make a golden lampstand (what is called today a menorah) holding seven lamps to be in the tent of worship. (cf. Ex. 25:31-37)  King David arranged Aaron’s descendents, the priests of Israel, into twenty-four divisions. (cf. 1 Chr. 24:1-19)  These priests wore robes of fine white linen.  Twelve precious stones were embedded in the breastplate of Aaron, the high priest; these stones almost exactly match the stones seen by John in his vision. (cf. Ex. 28:17-20)
What does all this mean for new covenant worship?  In the letter to the Hebrews, we read that Israel served God in “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” (Heb. 8:5) while Jesus has entered “the sanctuary and the true tent which is set up not by man but by the Lord.” (Heb. 8:2)  This comparison is explained further in Hebrews 9.  The new covenant in Christ’s blood has replaced the “copy and shadow” with the sacrament, a tangible reality which makes present what it signifies.  The vision of Jesus in high priestly attire vindicated Israel’s worship, showing that it did point to a true heavenly reality.  While the vestments worn by the priest in Catholic liturgy are not sacraments (that is, they do not confer grace), they are still signs of the heavenly liturgical worship of God which is made present in the Mass.
The liturgical vestments of the Church have developed over time, just as her liturgical rites have developed.  Even in the earliest days of the Church, Christian priestly vestments were not derived from the Jewish religion, but developed from the secular manner of dress in the Greco-Roman world.  The Mosaic cult’s use of liturgical vestments is probably the reason why the Church retained the use of clothing reserved for her worship, but that is where the contribution ends, as far as vestments is concerned.
In the Roman Rite, there are several sacred vestments worn during the Mass as signs of the ministerial office of certain members of the Body of Christ.  The common vestment to all ordained and instituted ministers is the alb worn with a cincture around the waist (unless the alb is made to fit without it).  Beneath the alb, if it does not cover the ordinary clothing at the neckline, an amice should first be put on.  Over the alb is the stole, worn over both shoulders for priests, but only over the left shoulder (bound at the right hip) for deacons.  The vestment proper to a priest celebrant is the chasuble, worn over the alb and stole.  The vestment proper to a deacon is the dalmatic, worn over the alb and stole.[1]  Acolytes, Lectors, altar servers, and other lay ministers may wear the alb, but they may not wear a stole, dalmatic, or chasuble, which are proper only to ordained ministers. (cf. GIRM 119)

[1] Although the dalmatic may be omitted out of necessity or on account of a degree of lesser solemnity, it is praiseworthy to refrain from omitting it.