Why Are You Dressed Like That? Part 2

Wearing a surplice for a baptismal service at an Army chapel.

Welcome to: Why are you dressed like that? Part 2.  This is a series of entries motivated by a young girl who visited us at St Francis Church and said to me: Why are you dressed like that? 

First, I invite you to Part 1 where you will you can read my disclaimer as to the accuracy of any assigned values to vestments.  If you do not want to go to that entry, the disclaimer is also copied at the end of this installment.

In Part 1, I discussed the regular street clothes of a priest AKA Clericals – the black shirt and white collar (and among some priests the cassock).  In Part 2 I will discuss the next layer of a priest’s vestments the Alb or the Surplice/Cotta.

The first thing to note is that these are nearly identical pieces of vestiture and the majority of people (including more than 1 or 2 priests) do not know one from the other.

To help clear up the confusion, here is a quick explanation/ definition of the two.

The surplice (and its close cousin the cotta – which is a short surplice) is functionally a modified alb which dates to the 11th century.  The name surplice is derived from the word superpellicium.  All that means is that the surplice is worn over the cassock.

The surplice is cut much fuller and was adopted in colder climates to fit over the thicker clothing worn to stay warm.  Likewise, the cotta (that shorter version) was adopted in hotter climates to try to stay a little cooler.  Either way, both are adaptations of the alb and are worn over the cassock.

The alb is the original vestment to go over the black clericals/cassock and is typically closer fitting.  The alb (and surplice and cotta) is white – the very word alb means white (so it is a bit redundant when you hear a person say something along the lines of “in a white alb”).  As mentioned in Part 1, you will find priests who wear the shirt and collar as their street clothes and others who will wear the cassock as their street clothes.  You will find priests who wear the alb directly over the clericals and others who wear it over the cassock because, unlike the surplice/cotta, there is no universal requirement for the alb to be over a cassock.

In some churches which use these vestments, there is a division made between them.  The alb is for the celebration of the Eucharist and the surplice/cotta (commonly referred to as “Choir Dress”) is for other functions (preaching etc).  This distinction is not universally followed and you will find priests doing non-Eucharistic services in an alb, and you will find priests celebrating the Eucharist in choir dress.  The variations are mostly dependent on the traditional practices of the individual church bodies.

Now regardless of whether one is wearing an alb, a surplice, or a cotta, what you have a priest dressed in black now covering the black with a garment of white.  What does it signify?  In Part 1 of this series, I spoke of the stain of sin the black clericals/cassock represents.  I invited your attention to the words in the Bible of the prophet Jeremiah who explained that we cannot clean ourselves of the stain – no matter how hard we try.

Today I invite you to the passage of the Bible where the prophet Isaiah who explained how God covered his sin.

I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness

And also to the passage in the Bible from the psalmist saying:

Let Your priests be clothed with righteousness, And let Your godly ones sing for joy.

These are just a couple verses from the Bible that give the background of the meaning of the Alb/Surplice/Cotta.  Yes, we are stained with sin.  No, there is nothing we can personally do to remove the stain.  But the righteousness of Christ – the Sacrifice of Jesus – is enough to cover all of our sin.  When a person is baptized into Christ and one perseveres in the faith, it is the purity of Jesus that covers all those sins and blots out the stain.

Why are you dressed like that – why wear the alb?  To remind me that I am sinful but Jesus has in His grace and unending mercy has covered my sin with His purity.  And, knowing that, I should always be motivated to live a personal life which reflects what Jesus has done for me – offering my life as a living sacrifice to Christ, seeking a pure heart and living a righteous life.

Pax et Bonum,
Fr Steve

the Very Rev’d Dr SG Rindahl
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Warriors on the Way


The 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.


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