32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Mk 12:38-44) “Men in Long Robes” PDF Version
Homily for the 32nd Sunday of OT, Year B (2018): Mk 12:38-44
If a Catholic priest is willing to dress like a priest in public, you never know what people might say to you! Often people see you and take a double look, probably thinking “no way, that guy is a priest!” Other people make quick eye contact and then quickly turn away, perhaps worried the priest may be able to read their mind or soul, while others just pass by indifferently.
Sometimes people say something to try to upset you. I remember one occasion when Fr Wilbert and I, along with a few other priests, were walking from St. Mary’s Cathedral to eat at a Japanese restaurant nearby. As two young men passed us by, one yelled out “I love Satan!” to which Fr Wilbert shrewdly replied “Well he does not love you!”
I have actually received the most hurtful attacks on my priestly identity from fellows Catholics. You learn to shrug the attacks off and not let them steal your peace for too long. But sometimes people say the oddest things about priests that cause you to reflect and see opportunities to teach the People of God about our identity and mission.
One such instance occurred when a fellow Catholic told me how angry he was that priests continued to wear vestments for the celebration of Mass. He said they were an oppressive relic of the past, akin to the long robes worn by the Scribes of Jesus’ time. While I did not take offense to this person’s comment, I did cause me to pause and think: “just what do Catholics think about us priests being all dressed up in these vestments?” “Do they understand what they mean?” “Do they also find them antiquated relics of the past and would rather see us in a sheik business suit or jeans and t-shirt much like televangelists or youth pastors at evangelical mega churches.”
Permit me then today to explain a little bit about why priests wear vestments for the celebration of the Holy Mass, hopefully showing it is not because we want to be noticed for wearing long robes but because these articles of clothing have beautiful symbolic meanings that enhance our celebration of the Holy Mass.
The spirituality behind a priest’s vestments is found in the writings of St Paul where he spoke of a Christian “putting on or clothing oneself in Jesus Christ.” While St Paul was speaking of the ways that a Christian spiritually invites Christ into their life to live as Christ did, manifested through works of charity and compassion, the Church also saw it as a call for clergy to wear unique vestments to indicate that they were undertaking sacred work and were now standing in the place of Christ to offer His Holy Sacrifice for the benefit and salvation of God’s people.
It is unlikely the first Apostles wore unique vestments for the celebration of the Lord’s Mystical Supper. It was not until the 4-5thcenturies AD, when Christianity was legalized and magnificent churches were being built in Rome and elsewhere in Christendom that more attention was paid to what bishops, priests and deacons would wear during the celebration of the Holy Mass and other sacraments. Most the vestments were ones that were worn by the ancient Romans, but they began to change in appearance to only be used during sacred celebrations and each vestments was given spiritual significance.
So let’s begin with the first vestment that many priests will put on for the celebration of the Holy Mass. It is known as an amice, which is a large white piece of cotton or linen that goes around a priest’s neck, covering his clerical collar and tied around the waist by long strings. The amice is also known as the helmet of salvation, and as a priest puts it on his body he prays that God will keep him safe from all the wickedness of the devil. Often it is during the celebration of the Holy Mass that the evil one will tempt a priest to shift his mind to begin thinking of other tasks he must do or entertain some sinful thought. The amice he wears then reminds him to focus on the task at hand and ask the holy angels to keep his mind free from the snares of evil.
The priest then puts on a long body length robe, usually white or cream in colour and often adorned with embroidery or lace on the sleeves and bottom portion of the robe. This robe is known as an alb, from the Latin alba or white. We known the ancient Romans wore albs overtop of their everyday clothing but others have seen in the alb a reminder of the garment that one wore on the day of their baptism. As the priest puts on the alb, he prays that it be for him a sign of purity and integrity, that as his sins were once washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb at his baptism, so too he will seek to live with a pure heart and be a man of integrity in all that he says and does.
Next, a priest will tie a long rope around his waist, with each end of the rope being adorned with a long tassels that will hang on either side of his lower torso. The ancient Israelites had the custom of tying their long robes around their bodies when they went on a long journey to prevent them from getting dirty. This might be in part the origin of this long rope known as a cincture. However in time the cincture, which has the particular purpose of cinching up a priest’s alb to be sure he won’t trip, became a symbol of the chastity and promise of celibacy lived by Catholic priests in the western world.
As the cincture is wrapped around one’s waist, the priest prays that the gift of chastity and celibacy will remain foremost in his life. Given all the scandals in our Church of priests committing sexual abuse against children but also having sinful sexual relations with other men and women, I think it important every priest tie his cincture and beg God for the grace to live that promise of chastity and celibacy he made to God, His Bishop and the entire People of God at his ordination to serve them in charity and not live a scandalous double life of saying he is a chaste celibate man while secretly sleeping with other men or women.
Next, the priest will place over his neck a long scarf like vestment, allowing it to hang down the front of his body. This scarf is known as a stole and is worn whenever a priest does some sacred duty, from celebrating the Holy Mass, to officiating a wedding, to blessing holy water or someone’s car. The stole symbolizes the office of the priesthood. It shows that He has been ordained to be of service to God’s people and to lead them in the Sacred Rites of our faith. For that reason, it is a symbol of humility, and as he puts it over his shoulders he prays that this humility will radiate in his life and guide him to eternal life.
Finally, the priest will place over his body a large garment in one of the many liturgical colours worn through the year. This is known as the chasuble. The ancient Romans also wore chasubles, most often those who were poor and peasants. As the priest places it over his body, he prays that just as Christ bore the yoke of the Cross on his shoulders, so too will the priest mystically take the cross into his life and enter into the celebration of the Lord’s Passion that is celebrated at each and every Mass. For this reason, the chasuble is symbol of charity, which is the greatest of all virtues and the crowning virtue of a priest.
As we have a holy deacon in our midst, I should mention the outer vestment he wears that differs from the priest’s chasuble known as a dalmatic. In ancient Rome, the dalmatic was worn by the elite and it was not surprising that very ornate ones were worn by the 7 deacons who served the Pope. This makes sense since the Deacons of Rome were also in charge of caring for the poor, widows, prisoners and the most oppressed. Hence, the deacons wore ornate vestments to show that they represented those whom St. Lawrence once said where the greatest treasure of the church, not gold chalices or brocade vestments, but the poor of God to whom Christ identifies with and numbers among His blessed.
So there you have it friends, all the vestments we priests wear at Mass, not as long robes like the Scribes of old to fill us with pompous privilege but each symbolically teaching us how Christ is mysteriously present in the person of the priest whenever the Holy Mass is celebrated.
Certainly a priest can become a touch too worried about what vestments he wears and in his vanity spend far too much time checking himself out in the mirror before Mass begins. But if he see them for what they are, a symbolic means to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and enter prayerfully and humbly into the sacred mysteries, they serve to drawn us closer to Christ and have a deep longer for the blessed life of heaven that we experience at each celebration of the Holy Mass.
***For anyone interested in a more in-depth explanation of the vestments worn by The Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests and deacons, please check out the following talk: