It is an understandable question. She had never seen a priest in vestments before. Not only that – even if she had, it is unlikely that she would have gotten an answer from anybody else she may have asked. The truth is, few priests and fewer parishioners know why a priest wears what he wears.
So the little girl’s question – Why are you dressed like that?, got me thinking: I ought to answer her question in this forum. Maybe a reader or two will find it of interest.
First a big disclaimer: You need to know up front that the majority (possibly all) vestments and other clerical wear got their start in something quite practical (such as keeping the priest warm in ancient churches without the benefit of modern HVAC systems). Once worn, however, various traditions of sacred symbolism have bee assigned to the many different things worn. The next thing you need to know is that the various traditions of sacred symbolism are not all the same. You may find one person say a particular piece of vestiture means one thing when somebody else says it means another. It is not (necessarily) that one is wrong, and the other right (although possibly so) but that they are both “right” in that either explanation of sacred symbolism is a valid way of interpreting the item. In this series, over the next few days or weeks, you will learn the symbolism as I learned it. I encourage to read about vestments and their meanings and see what else other people have to say as well.
Lacking any other place to start we will make it easy and go from the inside out beginning with “clericals.”
Clericals is a bit of a catch-all phrase which reflects a priest’s street clothes and what will be worn around the parish when not conducting services. Yes, I am talking about the black shirt and white collar. Depending on the priest, you may find one of the few – particularly those of the Orthodox faith – who wear a cassock (basically a thin, close-fitting black work-coat/coveralls) through the day.
Why is the priest in black? Why wear a collar turned around the wrong direction?
Well, going to the practical bit – black is easy to launder and does not show dirt the way other colors will. If you have a man whose job it is to tend the parish and its parishioners you want him to be able to care for his clothes as with as little difficulty as possible.
Now, more importantly – especially today, what is the sacred symbolism of “The Man in Black” (sorry Johnny Cash – could not resist).
Actually, the reference to Johnny Cash’s song “The Man in Black” is not too far off from why a priest wears black. The priest wears black to show a unique role in the world. While not a rejection of the world – it is a rejection of the riches and fineries and fashions (and fashion sense). It is a visual statement saying, “I am not here to satisfy my own desires but instead to help meet the needs of others. I will help carry off some of the darkness that exists in this world.” Likewise, the “backward collar” is just that. In the days of collars that attached separately from the shirt, clergy began wearing the collar buttoned in place backward to signify a different way of engaging with the world around them.
There is a bit more symbolism known by some (and when understood explains why a priest should not be wearing blue and green and all the other colors of the rainbow – remember, clericals are not about fashion. They are distinctly about not being in fashion – re-read above if need be).
The collar, when turned around, looks like an old slave collar. When worn this way it represents being a slave of Christ (as in the passage in the Bible where the Apostle Paul writes and gives us instruction as to the nature of our work: “Not serving to the eye, as it were pleasing men, but, as the slaves of Christ doing the will of God from the heart.”
The black clothing of the priest is representative of the sin we each bear; the sin that separates us from God the Father. The prophet Jeremiah writes about this in the Bible explaining: “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Lord GOD.”
If we are slaves of Christ and stained with sin to the point nothing can clean it – is there any hope? Can the stains be covered? Can freedom be achieved?
YES – But that is the next installment in this series. Check back again to learn about Albs and Surplices.
Pax et Bonum,