Those things priests wear at Mass


What are those things that priests put on when they say Mass, and what do they mean? That’s what I will try to explain today. Warning: the ideas in this piece are not mine. If the reader wants the real thing, he can google two important documents: Benedict XVI’s Homily on Holy Thursday, 5 April 2007; and the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff’s document “Liturgical Vestments and the Vesting Prayers.”

Let us address first the question of why wear anything special at all? Pope Benedict’s homily starts with a story (which I will not tell you here) to introduce the reason. Then he recalls the words of Saint Paul to the Galatians: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Strange words, huh? How do you put on a person? You put on clothes, but not persons. This is Saint Paul’s way of saying that we have to be converted into other Christs, let him take over our life, let him run our life, to the point of being able to say “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). That roughly means I no longer decide for myself, I let Jesus make the decisions, I don’t take a single step that he would disapprove of, and do things I myself may have never dreamed of doing. Putting on Christ is not a joke.

The vestments remind us of this. Just like at Baptism, when we were anointed and clothed with a white garment. When someone becomes a priest, he is anointed anew, taking on the job of celebrating the sacraments in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”). When the priest baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes. When he forgives sins, it is Christ who forgives sins. When he celebrates Mass, it is Christ who celebrates Mass. The priest is not a president or a performer who has to come up with nice tricks at the altar. He is not there to shine, he is there to disappear, so that Christ may shine. He is not preaching himself, he is preaching Christ. That is why he puts on vestments: he is reminded that he is putting on Christ – he is Christ at the altar.

Before the priest puts on Christ (signified by the vestments), he washes his hands. The meaning of this is clear. While he does so, the priest tells his Master, “Give virtue to my hands, O Lord, that being cleansed from all stain I might serve you with purity of mind and body.”

Then he usually puts on a square piece of cloth with two ribbons tied to two adjacent corners. This is called the amice. Many priests who use the amice habitually place it on the head first, because it signifies a protective helmet. He thus prays, “Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.”

Pope Benedict also says that the amice is like a hood that helps one to focus on the sacred rite that one is about to do and to the voice of God who speaks in the liturgy.

Then the priest puts on a long white garment which recalls the white garment we have received at baptism. Both the alb and the stole (see below) also remind us of the garments and the stole that the merciful father gave the repentant prodigal son. The priest prays, “Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.”

Benedict XVI admits that when he was young, he asked how blood can make something white, instead of red! “The answer is,” he says, “the ‘Blood of the Lamb’ is the love of the Crucified Christ. It is this love that makes our dirty clothes white.”

Then the priest ties a cord around his waist. This is called the girdle or cincture. It represents self-control and chastity, both of them fruits of the Holy Spirit. “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.” What a beautiful admission of weakness, in an age obsessed with pleasure.

The stole, a narrow strip of cloth, is worn over the shoulders in the celebration of the sacraments and sacramentals since it symbolizes the priestly power.

The extraordinary rite uses a short strip of cloth over the left forearm, called the maniple. It represents a handkerchief, for wiping tears and perspiration. The priest says, “May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow in order that I may joyfully reap the reward of my labors.”

Finally, the chasuble comes on top of this. It is a kind of cloak that covers the minister. The prayer that accompanies this recalls the words of the Letter to the Colossians (“Above all these things [put on] charity, which is the bond of perfection” — 3:14) and of Matthew’s Gospel (“My yoke is easy and my burden light” – 11:30). The chasuble, symbol of charity, goes over the stole, symbol of power: charity above power. That’s Pope Francis. And we know that charity is not that easy, it is a yoke. Fr John Hardon, SJ, says that charity can be defined as “the practice of ALL virtues for the sake of love [of God]” — I fail in one virtue, I fail in charity. Tough, eh? That’s why we need grace, that’s why we need prayer and the sacraments. We can’t do it all alone.

So what is my conclusion? Pray for us, priests, that through these sacred vestments, we may be worthy of the gift that Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, has given us. Pray for us, so that we will be able to say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

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