Liturgy Matters — Why wear vestments?

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the numbers of Christians increased exponentially. No longer could the church gather in people’s homes. Large gathering spaces were needed which led to more elaborate rites and rituals. Many of the trappings of the imperial court were adopted by the growing church and adapted for use in the liturgy. The use of formalized clothing called vestments was one of these adaptations.
At one time in the history of the church, the garments worn by the clergy for liturgy were the formal secular attire of the society in which they lived. There is one painting of a pope with his parents in which the pope and both his parents look to be wearing vestments, when actually, they were all dressed in the formal dress of the day.

Particular clothing to identify roles and to add festivity is quite commonplace in our society. Uniforms identify membership or a particular role for a person. Particular vesture may also designate authority, such as the robe of a judge or the academic robe and hood of a dean or professor.

Vestments for the liturgy serve as non-verbal communication. They announce that this is an official rite of the church. They identify authenticity of leadership
or ecclesiastical rank and particular liturgical roles. Vestments also add a certain formality and festivity to the celebration, especially for the most important feasts and sacramental celebrations.

Liturgical colors

To identify the liturgical season and to add solemnity and festivity to the celebration, the outer vestments of the priest and deacon are usually the particular color designated for the feast or season. For example, green vestments are used for the weeks in ordinary time. Red vestments are worn when celebrating solemnities of the Holy Spirit and most feasts of the apostles and martyrs. In Advent and Lent the liturgical color is violet. However, rose vestments are worn on the third Sunday of Advent and on the fourth Sunday of Lent, marking the midpoint of the preparation period for Christmas and Easter, respectively.
For the seasons of Christmas and Easter white vestments are worn. On Christmas and Easter, gold or silver vestments may also be used to highlight the solemnity of these two feasts. White vestments are also worn on the feasts of Mary, the Mother of God, and for most other weekday celebrations of particular saints. On weekdays that do not have a particular designation, the color of the vestments is determined by the season.
Within the liturgy, distinctive vestments are worn by the ordained ministers: the bishop, the priest and the deacon. Even some lay persons serving in various liturgical ministries may also be vested.

The chasuble,
dalmatic and stole

At Mass the outer garment the priest normally wears is a chasuble of the designated color. The chasuble is a sleeveless, tent-like garment, which has an opening for the head and then drapes loosely over the body.
The outer vestment for the deacon is a dalmatic. The dalmatic usually matches the chasuble in color but has a more fitted style with loose sleeves.
The stole, a long four to six inch wide strip of cloth, is worn by the priest and deacon under the dalmatic or chasuble. The manner in which the stole is worn distinguishes rank. The deacon wears a stole over his left shoulder across his body while the priest wears the stole around his neck hanging down the front.
My next column will continue this study on vesture.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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