Sunday, January 20, 2013

Vestments and the Vesting Prayers

Careful.  The unprepared can kill themselves when approaching the source of life.

Imagine the following: you're in a ship, hurtling through the heavens.  Your planet is dying, and your people are failing.  You are tasked with approaching the sun, in order to get its light, its power, its essence, and bring it down from the heavens to give to your people.  

It's the only thing that will save them.  It's the only thing that they need.

You're not sure if you can approach.  You're just a human in a tin can.  The sun is intense.  It's hot.  An everlasting flame.  A small mistake and you might come out unscathed, but if you approach and make a big mistake, it's over.  You're toast.  It's very tricky, very delicate.  The situation demands respect.

The most amazing part that fills you with fear?  You have to go straight up to it and touch it with your hands.  

It would be suicide to approach such an awesome force without the proper suit.

Garbs of grace.  Protection guaranteed.
When we approach the altar to begin Holy Mass, we are doing exactly what I described above, although even more specifically it is the clergy that does so.  Especially if a tabernacle is present behind the altar, the Holy of Holies is dwelling right there.  That is immense.  Think about that for a second.  

No, really think.  Don't just go over the dogmatic definition in your head and acknowledge that you believe it, as a good Catholic should.  Really think about what that means.

The One who upholds our individual and corporate existence by His mere thought.  The One who can simply speak and give or take away life.  The One who is the First and Last, Alpha and Omega.  Firstborn of all creation.  King of the Cosmos.  The Son of Man.  The Just Judge.  The One whose mouth sends forth a sword.  The One who makes all things new, He Who Has Been Pierced, the Lamb Who Stands As Though Slain.  The only One who can see into your very being, the fibers of your soul, the sinews that makes you a man.  He knows all about you, what you think, what you did then, and that day, and that one time, that nobody knows...and you will face Him to explain these things, and there will be nothing hidden from His Light, and the truth will be known before all, and He will place you with the sheep or goats, the wheat or chaff.

Does that strike you deeply?  GOD dwells in our midst.  A refreshing reminder.

It is by God's grace that we can approach Him and His might without being obliterated.  We should not forget this, yet it is something we easily forget. The world has desensitized us.  Our minds are mired in modernism.  It is no wonder that, even the thought of angels, let alone God, being in our presence in a Church, did (and do) women veil their heads in Church, and men wear fine clothes, and all conduct themselves solemnly in the presence of God, praying and speaking in whispers before and after Mass.  It is a wonder that we don't remove our shoes, like Moses did.  

For clergy who handle God Himself, and servers who enter the Holy of Holies with them, it is only fitting that they wear garbs that not only distinguish their purpose but also show a sign of reverence and protection--and signify the habit of sanctifying grace, the only thing that will allow us to be in God's presence at the end.

Recall in Genesis, that Adam and Eve were created with a pre-lapsarian body ( better than our own, but probably not as good as we will have after the Resurrection), and with a soul full of sanctifying grace--the life of God himself.  They walked naked with God.  Immediately after the fall, they were shamed and hid themselves.  God, out of his mercy, then clothes them.  There is a first level reading of this, but I think you could see a parallel between God clothing them and the symbolism of the vestments.

Isaiah 61:10 also speaks of being clothed with garments of salvation and robes of righteousness.

What are the Vestments?

Traditional Roman Catholic vestments are as follows, in order from inner to outer layer:

  • The Cassock: the non-liturgical garb of priests.  33 buttons represent the 33 years of Our Lord's life.  Although not in favor today, it is the true and traditional outfit of priests, designed to distinctly call them out as not serving this world and to not confuse their roles.  The Vatican requires clergy to wear the cassocks while in Rome.  I really like this because it leaves no question as to the function of whomever is wearing it.  Other occasions in which you will see clergy wearing this would be at solemn ceremonies or rites, such as a funeral.
  • The Amice: white linen wrapped around the shoulders, which symbolizes the "helmet of salvation" (cf Eph. 6:17)
  • The Alb: the white undergarment that covers the body; commonly seen with some degree of lace at the bottom.  It is old, from about the 4th century, and styled after Roman and Greek tunics.  According to the dictionary at Catholic, it represents the white linen that Christ was buried in, as well as purity of soul (something certainly needed for offering the Mass).
  • The Cincture: The rope-like belt that not only helps tie down the stole and alb, it signifies chastity and purity.
  • The maniple: For some reason it's one of my favorite parts of the vestments.  From the 6th century, it was probably a hanky for the priest to use during the liturgy.  It can represent being chained, like Christ, or the weight of the priestly office.  St. Alphonsus Liguori claimed that it actually was used to wipe away tears that priests shed during the liturgy; thus, also it has a meaning of the tears of penance.  
  • The stole: A sign of authority (the priest wears this while blessing and hearing confessions as well), it can symbolize how Christ was bound during His passion.  There are many slight variations to how the stole is worn (crossed or uncrossed) and under or over the chasuble, depending on clerical rank.  However, priests wear it under their chasuble, to hide authority with humility.  It must be mentioned that "women priests" wear the stole outside the chasuble...lack of humility.  
  • The chasuble: From the Latin word for "little house", it's the main outer covering of the priest.  Like many other vestments, the colors vary with liturgical season.  They are often embroidered with beautiful designs.  There are a few styles, such as Gothic, Roman, or "Fiddleback".  Preferably these are not made out of polyester, but very fine materials.  Garbs of grace, remember?  The chasuble used to be big and heavy, which is one of a few reasons why the servers lift it a lot when the priest raises the Host.


Alb (picture from


Gothic-style chausuble (photo from

There are more vestments than these, especially for deacons, bishops, the Pope, and so on, but these are the basics for a priest.  There are more meanings behind them, too, but this is a brief rundown.

Please excuse the layout; I'll fix when I figure it out.

The Vesting Prayers

The prayers that are said for each of the above, by the priest, are as follows (you may find these on the Vatican's website or, among others on a Google search.

  • Cassock: "Lord, the portion of my inheritance and my chalice, You are He who will restore my inheritance."
    • Interesting that this pray denotes that God is set apart of all things as the source of some sort of future prosperity, in the sense of eternal life, while mention of the chalice can refer to the chalice that Christ drank--as in, His sacrifice.  How much does this prayer reflect those who wear the cassock!  The one wearing it is also set apart in hopes that they may attain this inheritance, and that they may appear as living sacrifices by their disciplines.
  • Amice: "Lord, set the helmet of salvation on my head to fend off all the assaults of the devil."
    •   As mentioned before, this is playing off St. Paul's quote in Ephesians.  Obviously, the amice is not on the "head" as such in the diagram above, or even nowadays--but at times it did cover the head as a shawl almost.  It is also the "foundational piece" of liturgical garb, so to speak, as it is the first to be placed upon the non-liturgical vestment.  As the head contains all five senses that can be snared by the enemy--sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell--and the mind, it is only fitting that the "bedrock" of the vestments is associated with protection of the head.
  • Alb: "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."
    • The first of the "full body" vestments, there is not much to explain at the symbolism.  Our Lord's blood washes us clean, mentioned at least in the Book of Revelation.  Not only that, Our Lord's own clothing became blazing white at the Transfiguration--and He is the High Priest.
  • Cincture: "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."
    • Not much needs to be said here.  Girding the loins is a common theme from the Old Testament (such as commanded by God before the passover).  It is idiomatic for preparing for battle as well.  How much do we battle with purity and concupiscence!  Possibly the great battle of our time; just turn on the TV and you'll see.  As an aside, there are such sacramental cinctures that laity can wear and have blessed.  The Cincture of St. Joseph is a popular and traditional one.  It is blessed on the altar during a Mass.  It's a small rope that you can wear under your clothing, and has a devotion to go along with it.  
  • Maniple: "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."
    • Wow, priests have it rough, and we should pray for them.  We walk through this vale of tears daily, and we must suffer to reap our reward.  There is no salvation without the cross!    But even moreso, priests are singled out not only by the world but by the evil one.  The demons hate the efficacy of the Holy Mass, there is no doubt about it.  Our true life flows out of the Mass, and only by the priest can we have Mass.  Furthermore, their discipline is ridiculed by the world today, especially so when they wear the collar in public, and even more so with the cassock.
  • Stole: "Lord, restore the stole of immortality, which I lost through the collusion of our first parents, and, unworthy as I am to approach Thy sacred mysteries, may I yet gain eternal joy."
    • Notice how the stole seems as though a chain hanging around the neck, as though dragging us down, through the sin of our first parents.  Yet with the priestly stole, this burden is transformed into the sweet yoke of Our Lord.  Do not be deceived--it is still a yoke with a burden, but a light, joyful one that grants eternal joy.
    • Again, the stole is the sign of authority (worn during blessings and when hearing confessions), which is also a huge, burdensome responsibility, albeit a joyful one.
  • Chasuble: "O Lord, who has said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light,’ grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace."
    • Another mention of the sweet, light burden.
After the priests and everyone else vests, and the priest blesses them, it is time to leave the sacristy and begin the processional (for High Mass).  

There is no need to get into much detail here.  You will notice the acolytes, thurifers (incense bearers), torch-bearers, cross bearer, other servers and altar boys, and the subdeacons/deacons/master of ceremonies, and the priest come through and approach the altar.  The priest will quickly place a few things at the altar and then come back down while the servers take their places.

It is common to cross yourself as the cross comes by, and bow/incline your head to the priest as he comes by.

Almost Time for Your First Traditional Latin Mass
It is almost time to begin explaining the Mass prayers themselves.  However, before this, there is a ceremony done before the principal High Mass of the day and on some feast days, known as the asperges.  It is not part of the Mass proper, but it is in Latin, and is not familiar to many as it seems to have fallen greatly out of favor.  We will study the prayers and reflect on the ceremony next time.

What Should I Do?
If it is your first time, I actually suggest you do not get a red missalette or use any other resource to try to follow along.  Prayerfully watching and praying are great.  Just watch and pray and don't sweat it.  Did I mention pray?  

Everyone has a first time, and nobody will ridicule you.  They will probably offer you help if you really seem like you're trying to swim but are sinking; but in most cases, if you appear to just be taking it all in, you'll be left alone.  

Nobody is expected to catch on the first time.  Most people who are encouraging people to attend the Traditional Latin Mass suggest going six to eight times before making a judgment call on the Mass, because it takes that long to get the hang of it.  Life isn't easy, and many things take practice and adjustment.  Even though Heaven meets Earth in the Mass, we're still laboring and toiling for things on Earth.

You could look up the prayers of the day before you come if you'd like to know the Collect or Introit in advance.  The Old Rite follows a one-year lectionary, so you won't have to worry about figuring out what the Propers (variable prayers/readings in the Mass) are in Year One Cycle B or however it works (sorry, I honestly am not familiar with a three-year lectionary).  It will always be the same for that day.  The priest will almost certainly re-read the epistle and Gospel in the vernacular (I've never seen this omitted, although I do believe it is not required).

You will also notice that as things start moving, it's basically a straight shot from start to finish.  You will almost feel at the mercy of the Old Mass's momentum; due to its nature, there's not a lot of stopping, switching, and waiting for other people.  For example, the choir and congregation sing the Introit and Kyrie while the priest is incensing the altar, and then the priest finishes and says the Introit and Kyrie on his own.  Almost seamlessly, the priest will finish the Kyrie as soon as the choir and congregation finish, and then the priest leads the Gloria.  The only breather in this race to Heaven is the announcements, re-readings in the vernacular, and the sermon.    

Until next time: St. Isaac of Syria, pray for us.
Pope St. Fabian and St. Sebastian, pray for us.

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