Sunday, July 2, 2017

Teaching Mass 1 - Vestments

Prior to the Beginning of Mass

The priest’s vestments are placed in the front of the Church and the priest – unvested – waits nearby; as each vestment is mentioned, the priest dons it while the Commentator continues.  

The Commentator (from the Cantor Stand or other place that isn’t the Ambo begins):

It would be impossible to consider in one celebration every meaning-packed movement of the Mass.  So, over the next several months we’re going to occasionally celebrate teaching Masses together.  Masses that help us reflect on something you may have never known before – that the Mass is our ‘training ground’ for living the Christian life.  Basketball and football teams practice long hours, running drills over and over, preparing to compete and win.  Actors practice their lines and musicians practice their scales – all as a way to develop the skills needed to perform well.  Mass is where we “practice” living the Christian life.  Every movement, every word, every posture - literally everything about the Mass is designed to practice something important about living the Christian life.

Today we’re going to focus on the garments worn by the priest and ministers at Mass – but this isn’t merely trivia.  Every meaning we discuss applies to all of us, too.  The priest may be the only one to wear these garments, but each of them speaks of a deeply Christian reality that, in one way or another, applies to us as well.  Ask yourself, as we do this, “What does this have to say about who I am and how I am called to live the Great Adventure of the Christian life?”


We’re going to start at the very beginning – actually before the beginning.  Our journey to the altar begins before we enter the Church building.  Wherever we’re coming from – whatever we have been doing – we set our eyes toward this special encounter with Jesus.  But our calling is even ‘earlier’ than that – it is rooted in our baptism – the moment we became a member of God’s family.  

That’s why the first thing we do when entering the sacred space for Mass is bless ourselves with Holy Water – it is a tangible reminder of our baptism.  That’s why there are small fonts of holy water at the doors to the sanctuary.  This Great Adventure of the Christian life began at our baptism – and we remind ourselves of that every time we come into this sacred space to pray.  

It’s also why the first garment the priest puts on is the alb. The alb is literally the baptismal garment – the same garment we give to infants when we celebrate baptisms here; the same baptismal garment you were given at your baptism with the instruction to bring it unstained to Jesus at the end of time.  Priests, deacons, and even servers put on the alb before their service at the altar as a reminder that this service is only possible because of their baptism.  Every person that is baptized receives a white garment in their baptism – and every time we serve God in the liturgical action of the Church, we put on our baptismal garment first.

Over the alb – liturgical ministers also wear a cincture – this is the ancient version of a belt. In the ancient world, one might relax around the house without the cincture, but when it was time to “suit up” and “get busy” you tied the cincture around your waist to hold everything in place while you got to work.  The cincture is a sign to all of us that living the Christian life is about ‘suiting up’ and ‘getting busy’ – there are souls to be saved, including our own…

The cincture is also a sign of being on pilgrimage – moving through a foreign land toward home (where you might once again remove the cincture and relax).  To live the Christian life is to be constantly on pilgrimage; this world is not our home, we journey through a foreign land in this life – our home is in heaven with the Lord.  We’re travelers, strangers, on pilgrimage through this time and place.  We have to ‘tighten up belt’ and keep moving…

Finally, the cincture also represents chastity according to one’s station in life.  Serving God and others well requires that we manage our passions and appetites rather than letting them manage us, so they don’t get in the way of our love for God and our role in His mission.

The priest then puts on the stole.  It’s meaning goes all the way back to the garment Jesus used to wash His disciple’s feet – a reminder that all ordained ministry is a ministry of service following the model of Christ ‘who came to serve, not to be served’.  

The stole is a sign of office – and the great responsibility of service that comes with leadership.  The deacon’s stole is ‘tied’ at the side like Jesus tied the garment around his waist when washing the disciples feet on Holy Thursday.  This represents the active ministry of the diaconate to care for the poor and marginalized, while the priest’s stole is worn across both shoulders as a sign of being ‘yoked’ to the work of Christ – like an ox or a cow tied to the plow.  This also reminds the priest that he is ‘yoked’ to Jesus, who is the one who does all the heavy lifting in ministry.

Finally – the priest dons the chasuble – originally a travelling garment, the chasuble is like putting on a coat to head out for a journey. Eventually, in the Roman Empire, the chasuble became a sign that the wearer acted as an official representative of the Emperor.  The one who spoke while wearing the chasuble spoke with the voice and authority of the Emperor.  It makes sense, then, that the chasuble is only worn by priests and bishops who serve the people of God in persona Christi capitus – in the person of Christ the Head.  Any honor or respect paid to the priest in the liturgy is only because he makes present the ministry of Jesus, the High Priest Himself. Honor and glory belong only to Jesus Christ Himself.

The priest then enters the worship space and completes his preparation for Mass.  Each priest has a different way of doing this.  But, in some way, all priests ‘formulate their intentions’ for the sacrifice they’re about to offer.  This means that the priest crawls before the throne of heaven and makes clear to our Heavenly Father what he intends to do.  He does this because, knowing his weakness and human frailty all too well, it is likely his efforts will fall short of the desire of his heart to serve God and the faithful entrusted to his care.  The priest trusts in God’s mercy – and in the love and mercy of Christ the High Priest – to make his weak attempts acceptable.  

Each one of us should find some way to prepare ourselves to fulfill our role as the praying people of God gathered to assist in the Sacrifice of the Mass.  We don’t ‘watch’ the Mass like a movie or a play – Mass is not a spectator sport.  We – each of us in our own way – actively ‘assist at the sacrifice of the Mass’ by playing our part as attentively and devoutly as the priest and ministers.  

You can usually find Fr. Alan at one side of the Church just before Mass making his prayer of intention.  Today, he will let us listen in…

God our Father, it is my intention to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass according to the Rites and Rubrics of the Holy Catholic Church, in communion with Francis our Pope and John our Bishop, and all those who – holding to the truth – hand on the Catholic and Apostolic faith.  It is my intention to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for good of all the faithful gathered here, that they might continue their journey toward You.

Most of all, Father, I offer this sacrifice for the praise and glory of Your name, which is only possible through the great gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name I stand, and through whose love and mercy alone could one such as me be called to so great a ministry. Lord Jesus – you know my sins and my weaknesses – heal my woundedness and grant me virtue, that I may serve your holy people worthily and well all the days of my life.  

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