He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, March 26, 2018

Love it to Death: The Vestments of Love

Our clothing, as Americans today, is primarily a representation of who we are as individuals.  We might have a uniform we wear to work or in the military as a secondary matter, but the first and most fundamental way we have of understanding clothing is as a matter of personal expression.

In the scope of human history, personal expression has probably always been a factor in clothing choices.  But it was probably very much a secondary factor much of the time.  For the ancients, clothing was much more likely to be primarily a representation of that to which they owed some allegiance, whether it be their tribe, their king, or their family.

When the ancients wore clothing which was a representation of that to which they owed allegiance, it was an act of self-effacement.  Even the messenger of a wealthy king, who would have been dressed quite richly, wasn't dressed richly because he himself was the king, but because he was acting as the representative of the king, and therefore needed to show quite obviously whom it was that he was representing.

That said, it was also understood that how one treats the king's messenger is indicative of how much one respects the king.  If you treat the king's messenger well, and send him back to the king with gifts and provisions, then the king knows that you are communicating your high respect for him, or at least for his position.

On the other hand, if you snub the king's messenger by refusing to feast with him, and then send the messenger back home with harsh words, the king will notice that you do not have much respect for him.  In short, it was generally wise to treat the messenger dressed in the king's colors almost as well as you would treat the king himself.

The Founders of the United States probably understood all this at least somewhat.  Many of them had some close ties to the countries of their forebears in which kings and their messengers were well-known.  We who live in these United States 250 years later, however, are unlikely to ever have known a king, or even lived for long in a country whose king had exercised any immediate authority over us.

I consciously realized today (Palm Sunday) at Mass, that our parish priest was dressed in very fine vestments.  I recognized that these must be fairly expensive garments, and that they were extraordinarily beautiful.  These vestments wouldn't make sense in any other context than representing a king.

Here in the U.S. we have no earthly king.  Perhaps this is why we Americans can find rich vestments on our clergy a bit off-putting.  Having no king, we no longer have an easy cultural touchstone to function as a way to arrive at the understanding that ornate priestly vestments are less a matter of personal expression and more a matter of representation.

It is easy for us to imagine that the priest thinks that he's all high and mighty because of his fine robes as he celebrates the liturgy, and difficult for us to imagine that he dresses in these vestments because he is representing the King of kings and Lord of lords when he celebrates the memorial feast of the King of Heaven.

It's easy for us to imagine that the priest simply has a personal preference for frilly, fanciful garments.  And based on what I've seen of gossip in these sexuality-obsessed days, it's even easier to suggest with a wink to others that the priest likes such things because he's secretly attracted to other men.

It's more difficult for us to imagine that the priest finds them difficult to wear because of the heat and the weight of them, and to sympathize with him.  And it's more difficult to imagine that he actually finds those fancy vestments difficult to wear because he knows how the gossip will play out, but he wears them out of obedience to the Church anyway.

This is an act of the obedience of Love.  To turn over our choice of clothing to the King as an act of representing our King is, in a small way, to show our love for Him by obedience, and thus to love to death a part of our ego.

The childish ego we carry with us wants to keep the focus on our clothing as a matter of personal expression, so that we can get compliments from the people we prefer them from, and perhaps so that those we prefer to offend will be bothered by our clothing.

Christ the King asks us to turn everything over to Him, and to live every part of our lives representing Him who is eternal Love rather than the transient desires of our egos.  This naturally includes how we clothe ourselves, and in a special way it includes those who are designated to act as the King's messenger before the community.

And so the priest wears the vestments of Love, the rich kingly garments that show us vibrantly that it is the King of Kings for whom he delivers a message.

The above is a picture I took of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com, and it is one part of a diptych depicting both Mary and Christ.  It shows Christ in liturgical vestments, crowned and enthroned in glory with the symbols of the four Evangelists surrounding Him.


  1. It's interesting to think about, Sam. I'd never thought much about clothing as it's portrayed in the New Testament, and especially the Gospels, but it's worth considering. In Revelation 7 it says that those who are clothed in white robes are those who have "washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." In the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, the king finds a man at the wedding feast who does not have a wedding garment on, and he is cast out. The ancient Church understood Baptism as that sacrament through which our sins are washed away, and we receive that white robe of baptism. As much as we like to make the plan of salvation simple, being a believer in Christ is not merely an internal prayer or belief in Christ. Rather, it's the joining of His Church through the visible sign of Baptism.

    Perhaps the easy availability of mass-produced clothing has separated us quite a bit in spirit from those Biblical times. In those days, having a garment could make the difference between life and death. In the Mosaic law, someone who took a man's cloak as collateral was ordered to give it back to him in the evening, because how else would the man keep warm without a cloak?

    Clothing was worth a lot more back in those times. Why else would the robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan strip the poor traveler and leave him half dead? It's because they could probably get a decent amount in coins or trade from the clothes, or could even wear them themselves. It's why the Roman guards split Jesus's garments and cast lots for His tunic after they crucified Him. While we might like to think of this as gratuitous cruelty on their part, it was hardly gratuitous. In those days in which all clothing was made by hand, Jesus's clothing would have been worth something. Clothing was tied up in survival in those days in a way that it simply isn't today.

    Perhaps the Church's insistence on fine garments is also tied to its reverence for the Eucharist--how better to honor Christ physically and substantially present than to clothe the person who is calling down this sacrament in the finest garments available?

    Sorry if these thoughts are a bit jumbled. You've given us some good food for thought with this post!

    1. They may be jumbled thoughts, but I think they're good ones. I was actually tempted to include a reference to Jesus' clothing being taken after lots being cast for it and other passages from Scripture, but I thought it would lengthen the post too much.

    2. Amen to you all!
      Thanks for these great posts!
      Sam, I am excited to read the Autobiography!

  2. As a priest who stands in for the King I feel paricularly humbled to proudly represent joy on Latare Sunday, “Rejoice Oh Jerusalem, I say again Rejoice!” Rose colored vestments readied for only 2 days in the liturgical year, and all to demonstrate a joyful tenor in Lent & Advent. I say yes to this great King, I’m all in!!!

    1. We greatly appreciate you representing the King, Friar John!