What is the origin and meaning of the vestments the priest wears at Mass?

The liturgical vestments worn at Mass have evolved over time.  Nevertheless, since the earliest days of the Church, liturgical vestments have been worn by priests for the celebration of the Mass.  Even though priests of the Old Testament wore vestments in their liturgical rites, the “Christian” vestments are not really adaptations of them; rather, the vestments of the Christians developed from the dress of the Graeco-Roman world, including the religious culture.  Nevertheless, the Old Testament idea of wearing a special kind of clothing in the performance of liturgical rites did influence the Church.  St. Jerome asserted, “The Divine religion has one dress in the service of sacred things, another in ordinary intercourse and life.”  After the legalization of Christianity in A.D. 313, the Church continued to refine “who wore what when and how” until about the year 800 when liturgical norms for vesting were basically standardized and would remain so until the renewal following the Second Vatican Council.

To date, for the celebration of Mass, a priest wears the amice, alb, cincture, stole, and chasuble.  (With the promulgation of the new Roman Missal in 1969, the use of the maniple was suppressed.)

The amice is a piece of white linen, rectangular in shape, with two long cloth ribbons.  The priest places it around his neck, covering the clerical collar, and then ties it by crisscrossing the ribbons in his front (to form a St. Andrew’s cross), bringing them around the back, around the waist and tying them in a bow.  The practical purpose of the amice is to conceal the normal clerical clothing of a priest, and to absorb any perspiration from the head and neck.  In the Graeco-Roman world, the amice was a head covering, oftentimes worn underneath the helmets of the Roman soldiers to absorb sweat, thereby preventing it from flowing into their eyes.  The spiritual purpose is to remind the priest of St. Paul’s admonition: “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17).  The former vesting prayer was “Place, O Lord, the helmet of salvation on my head to resist the attacks of the devil.”

The alb is a long, white garment, which flows from shoulders to ankles, and has long sleeves extending to the wrists.  (The word alb means “white.”) The alb was a common outer garment worn in the Graeco-Roman world and would be similar to the soutane worn in the Middle East.  However, those of authority wore albs of higher quality with some kind of embroidery or design.  Some modern style albs have collars which preclude the necessity for an amice.  The spiritual purpose reminds the priest of his baptism, when he was clothed in white to signify his freedom from sin, purity of new life, and Christian dignity.  Moreover, the Book of Revelation describes the saints who stand around the altar of the Lamb in Heaven as “These are the ones who have survived the great period of trial; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14).   In the same way, the priest must offer the Mass with purity of body and soul, and with the dignity befitting Christ’s priesthood.  The former vesting prayer was “Make me white, O Lord, and purify my heart so that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb, I may deserve an eternal reward.”

The cincture is a long, thick cord with tassels at the ends which secures the alb around the waist.  It may be white or may be the same liturgical color as the other vestments.  In the Graeco-Roman world, the cincture was like a belt.  Spiritually, the cincture reminds the priest of the admonition of St. Peter: “So gird the loins of your understanding; live soberly; set all your hope on the gift to be conferred on you when Jesus Christ appears.  As obedient sons, do not yield to the desires that once shaped you in you ignorance.  Rather, become holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, after the likeness of the holy One who called you” (I Peter 1:13-15).  The former vesting prayer was “Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity and extinguish in my heart the fire of concupiscence so that, the virtue of continence and chastity always abiding in my heart, I may better serve Thee.”

The stole is a long cloth, about four inches wide and of the same color as the chasuble, that is worn around the neck like a scarf.  It is secured at the waist with the cincture.  Traditionally, the stole was crisscrossed on the chest of the priest to symbolize the cross.  The stole too is of ancient origin.  Rabbis wore prayer shawls with tassels as a sign of their authority.  The crisscrossing of the stole also was symbolic of the crisscrossed belts the Roman soldiers wore: one belt, holding the sword at the waist, and the other belt, holding a pouch with provisions, like food and water.  In this sense, the stole reminds the priest not only of his authority and dignity as a priest, but also of his duty to preach the Word the God with courage and conviction (“Indeed, God’s word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword.” Hebrews 4:12) and to serve the needs of the faithful.  The former vesting prayer was “Restore unto me, O Lord, the Stole of immortality which I lost through the sin of my first parents and, although unworthy to approach Thy sacred Mystery, may I nevertheless attain to joy eternal.”

Finally, the chasuble is the outer garment worn over the alb and stole.  Over the centuries, various styles of chasubles have emerged.  Derived from the Latin word casula meaning “house,” the chasuble in the Graeco-Roman world was like a cape that completely covered the body and protected the person from inclement weather.  Spiritually, the chasuble reminds the priest of the charity of Christ: “Over all these virtues put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect” (Colossians, 3:14).  The former vesting prayer was “O Lord, Who hast said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light,’ grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.”

In the Middle Ages, two popular interpretations of the meaning of the vestments arose.  The most prevalent one interpreted the vestments as symbols of Jesus’ passion: the blindfold (the amice) and the garment (the alb) as He was mocked and beaten; the ropes and fetters (the cincture) which bound Him during the scourging; the cross (the stole) He carried; and the seamless garment (the chasuble) for which the soldiers rolled dice.  The other popular interpretation focused on the vestments in their Roman military origins and viewed them as symbols of the priest as the soldier of Christ doing battle against sin and Satan.

In all, the vestments used at Mass have a two-fold purpose: “These should therefore symbolize the function of each ministry.  But at the same time the vestments should also contributed to the beauty of the rite” (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, #335). Moreover, the vestments inspire the priest and all of the faithful to meditate on their rich symbolism.