Liturgical Vestments of Clergy

Published by Jacob P Varghese on

The ordinary attire and ceremonial vestments of clergy have symbolic meanings and have sacramental significance. As outward things are expressive of the inward reality, so also is true about people’s clothes. The beliefs, ideas, and moods of vestments we wear, when we offer Holy Sacrifices have three-fold significance. They represent Purity, Sacrifice and Service. So, vestments are the robes of Holiness, Sacrifice and complete dedication to the service of God.

The liturgical vestments of clergy signify that they are set apart and blessed by the Church to kindle good thoughts and to increase devotion in those who see and those who use them. They are the attire of the celebrant while he is exercising the functions of his ministry and using the sacred powers, he received at his ordination. There is a distinction is often made between the type of vestment worn for Holy Eucharist and that worn for other services.

The ordinary white dress signifies the original purity of humanity. Archpriest wears a white gown with red or purple girdle as a normal dress. The ordinary dress of a bishop is a red or purple robe, signifying royalty. Deacons and priests wear a black hat, which has seven sections, signifying the seven sacraments as well as the seven steps to ordination to priesthood. On the ordinary head-dress of a bishop there will be thirteen crosses stitched on it, representing our Lord Jesus Christ and the twelve disciples. This also tells that the bishop is really a monk.

During the Old Testament time, special clothing was designed for priests, for dignity and honour (Ex. 28: 2), and this attire of the Old Testament priests, also has crucial roles in formulating appropriate clothing for worship in Christian Church (Exodus 28: 1 – 43). In other words, the priests were wearing separate clothing as a sign of holiness they have been gifted to perform priestly service of Divine glory. The vestments are highly symbolic and are modelled after the Old Testament fashion (Ex 28: 2-43).  Exodus 28: 2 – 39; Garments for the Priesthood are described in these 38 verses.  “Then you shall make holy garments … a breastplate, an ephod, a full-length robe, a skillfully woven tunic with a fringe, a turban, and a sash …. of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet fabric and fine linen, and you shall make the sash of woven work … shall wear them when they come into the tabernacle of testimony or when they come near the altar of the holy place to minister as priests ….. It shall be an ordinance forever to him (the Levites) and his seed after him.”

The vestments represent the spiritual armor (Eph. 6: 10-18) and this has played a role in the development of liturgical attire. The prayers recited while wearing each of these vestment pieces describe and magnify their significance and meanings also. Each vestment symbolizes a spiritual dimension of the priesthood, for liturgical colour and period, with roots in the very origins of the Church. These vestments and colors are truly symbols, that can lead us to God and towards great and more beautiful participation in His mysteries. The vestments serve a spiritual function of helping to bring the faithful into the atmosphere of deeper understanding and meaningful participation in liturgy. The vestments bear a very deep meaning; they are robes of love that reflect their special mission and identity in Christ and are iconic representations of our Lord and the angels, serving at the one altar of God. Clergy attire is part of this ‘foreshadow’ of Heaven and the spiritual edification of the Church, as in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 1, where one gets a glimpse of God being worshiped in Heaven.  

The vestments worn by the officiating clergy are seen by the faithful of congregation as part of the action and ritual of the service of worship. The vestment of the celebrant resembles the royal dress of a king. The celebrant, attired in the sacred vestments, symbolise Christ the King. The vestments worn by the clergy vary with their hierarchical order in the priesthood. The deacons, the priests, the bishops, and the patriarch have distinct liturgical vestments. The clergy who leads public worship are ‘set apart’ and ‘called apart’ by wearing ‘formal’ robes specific to their calling.’ The ceremonial vestments comprise of seven pieces for priests and twelve pieces for bishops; these are for beauty and glory (Ex 28: 2). Gradually over a period the liturgical clothing took on special significance as liturgical vestments, to be worn only during worship. Until around the third century A.D. the ministers of the Church did not wear any distinctive liturgical or symbolical costumes dung worship. There was the custom, in the ancient Roman empire to wear specially designed clothing during festive occasions. The present-day attire for worship has become poplar from the 4th century AD, from the time of John Chrysostom, (347 – 407). Bishop John Chrysostom (347 – 407), Mar Rabbula of Edessa (411-435), and Mar Ephrem (303 – 373) have expounded on the significance of vestments used by the priests.


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