Thursday, November 8, 2012

Cassocks, Genevas, and Albs - Oh My!

The topic of clerical vestments is one that is often mired by the red herrings of personal preference and papaphobia.  Coupled with these realities is the fact that most laymen (and even clergy) have no idea what these vestments mean, much less how they developed. Growing up, the only vestiture I had acquaintance with was the black robe of my pastor and the stole he wears over it, the color of which varies with the season of the Church Year.  On occasion, a seminarian would preach when pastor was out of town.  The seminarians usually wore a white gown (an alb) and sometimes a rope-like belt (a cincture), which I naturally assumed was what all seminarians wore before they became pastors and graduated to the black robe.  Eventually, I observed full-fledged pastors also wearing white; some wore gowns like my pastor’s (“white Genevas”) and others wore what I had seen the seminarians wear.  At this point I was led to believe that the matter was entirely one of adiaphora. 

In high school, chapel leaders (usually teachers) almost always wore business attire, but on special feast days the presiding pastor was typically vested in an alb.  Even more unusually, on some feast days there would be a procession, complete with a processional cross and candles.  The students who participated in this procession were also vested in albs.  I thought the whole sordid affair was utterly “Catholic” (if only I had known how right I was!).  Speaking of Catholic, during my junior year I was privileged to attend a WELS Band Festival event in Michigan.  The host family I stayed with attended a parish where the pastor wore a colored garment - and an ornately decorated one at that (a garment I now recognize as a chasuble).  This was scandalous to me at the time, and we had a long talk about the pernicious state of the WELS in youth group the following week.

However, after becoming acquainted with Lutheran orthodoxy, my understanding of clerical vestments vastly changed.  The Lutheran blogosphere led me to understand the history and development of liturgical vestitutre, as well as the fact that the Lutheran Church never abandoned them - in fact, she confesses to maintain them: “Among us [. . .] the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, [emphasis added] and other like things" (AP:XXIV:1).  

So, what exactly is the traditional vestiture of the Western Church?  A good place to start is with those vestments used at the celebration of the Chief Divine Service - that is, the Service of Holy Communion. 

Example of cassock and amice
1. Cassock.  The cassock is a full-length black garment that was traditionally used as the daily uniform of the clergy.  In other words, its historical use wasn’t so much liturgical as it was practical.  One might equate it with the business suit that most pastors wear in WELS circles.  Today, however, most members of the clergy only wear cassocks with their liturgical vestments, and without a doubt it has deep symbolic meaning.  First and foremost, its color is representative of humility and mourning, particularly highlighting the unworthy sinfulness of the person wearing it.  In addition, traditional cassocks come replete with 33 buttons, each of which represent the 33 years Christ lived on this earth.  It should be noted, however, that cassocks are not limited to the clergy.  They can be worn by any church worker, particularly those who spend a significant amount of time in the sanctuary and whose liturgical function warrants the use of a surplice (explained below).

2.  Amice.

Although a vestigial head covering, the amice is still symbolically recognized as the “helmet of salvation” (cf. Ephesians 6:17), as indicated by the Roman vesting prayers.  In contemporary usage, the amice rests on the shoulders of the clergy, directly over the cassock.  It is composed of white cloth of varying ornamentation, and is fastened with two ribbons on its opposing ends. 
3. Alb. 
Example of alb, stole, and cincture
The alb is the full-length garment that covers the cassock and amice.  Its covering of the black (remniscient of sin) cassock is extremely symbolic, since its vesting prayer hearkens to what we call the "robe of Christ's righteousness;" that is, the robes of the saints who have washed their robes in the Blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).  The historical development of this vestment is less profound, originating in the tunic worn by the citizens of the Roman Empire.  Moreover, like the cassock, it was once considered part of the standard wear of the clergy.  Eventually, it developed a strictly liturgical presence, much like the cassock is transitioning to in our day.   

4. Cincture.

The cincture is none other than a rope-like belt which holds the alb in place.  Given the symbolism attached to the preceding vestments, it is not unwarranted to consider the cincture as an analogy of St. Paul's charge: "gird...your waiste with truth," as written in the Epistle to the Ephesians (6:14).  Indeed, the name "cincture" is often used interchangeably with "girdle," drawing even greater parallels with St. Paul's words.  Likewise, the vesting prayer makes reference to the "girdle of purity," evoking a similar theme.

5. Stole.

The stole is a status symbol that developed as a sign of rank in certain facets of ancient Roman government.  In Liturgical use, the stole denotes the wearer's ordination.  Worn diagonally, it is symbolic of the diaconate; worn around the neck (as pictured), it is a symbol of the pastoral office.  Its color varies with the Church year.

An ornate alb, maniple, and chasuble
6. Maniple
The maniple is a small towel that the celebrant wears over his left arm.  Like the stole, it matches the color of the feast or day in the church year being observed.  It has been said that the maniple was historically used by the officiating clergy to wipe his tears and regain composure during the Mass.  Whether or not this is authentic, the maniple is most certainly a symbol of the anguish and grief that accompany the pastoral office, as exemplified by the vesting prayer, which calls for strength to bear the "weeping and sorrow" that accompany it.

7. Chasuble

The chasuble is the primary vestment worn by the pastor celebrating the Holy Supper.  The chasuble has the nature of a poncho and actually developed from an overcloak-like garment that was fashionable in the Roman Empire.   Chasubles come in various styles and decoration.  It should be noted, however, that in Lutheran usage the medieval style of chasuble - free-flowing to the celebrant's wrists (as pictured) - is favored, as opposed to the sleeveless, shield-shaped model favored by the Tridentine rite of the papists.  Symbolically, the chasuble represents the yoke of Christ (exemplified by the vesting prayers below), per His assurance in St. Matthew 11:30: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light."

With the exception of the cassock, all of the above vestments are to be worn only when the Blessed Sacrament is celebrated.  In many Lutheran circles, however, it is common to see the pastor vested in an alb regardless of whether or not the Communion is being celebrated. However, this is a rather ahistoric practice.  Generally speaking, when a chasuble is not being worn, the traditional vestiture is a surplice.  Surplices are billowing white garments which typically rest at the wearer's knees, which separates them from their close-fitting, full-length counterpart, the alb.  Unlike the alb, a surplice can be worn by anyone, be it acolytes, organist, or choir members.  Likewise, they can be worn with a stole at any non-Communion occasion the pastor is officiating (especially the Divine Offices and Communion-less weddings and funerals).

File:School choir.jpg
A school choir clad in cassocks and surplices

But where does this leave the black preaching robe?  Many people refer to these as "Black Genevas." I mean, come on, just look at the name:  "Geneva."  The symbolic epicenter of the Reformed.  Home of John Calvin.  That sets off a few bells!

The truth of the matter is that the Geneva gown isn't a Reformed invention, though they were proponents of its use in worship.  Geneva gowns are simply the academic gowns that originated in medieval Europe, the use of which we retain in many aspects of contemporary life - graduation from high school and college, the judicial system, etc.

What is more, the use of black preaching robes in worship really originated with the Lutheran Reformers.  The Blessed Reformer himself wore a black preaching robe in lieu of the regular vestments.  Apparently, until 1523 he was wont to wear the usual Augustinian garb, but when his Elector sent him black cloth to make a black gown, he made use of it forthwith  (Paul L. Siegler, "Luther as Preacher," p. 5).  During the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy, it became the standard wear of Lutheran clergy outside of the larger parishes where traditional vestments were maintained.

So I'll be brutally honest:  I would rather see a black preaching robe than an alb (or such new-fangled innovations as  the cassock-alb).  There, I said it.  I may be biased - undoubtedly because it's what I'm used to - but it is certainly more a part of the Lutheran tradition than a plain alb.

Regardless, very few (if any) lay people think of these rationale in contemporary Lutheran circles.  No one uses black robes because they are "Reformed."  However, people do use the alb because they think it is more "historic."  Considering the ahistoric nature of using an alb without a chasuble, coupled with the fact that the Reformer himself used the black robe, I find it dubious to chastise the use of a black robe while lauding the stand-alone alb. 

Would it be fantastic if all pastors wore the traditional vestitutre of our Church?  Perhaps.  But in WELS circles especially, the black robe has developed a specific liturgical use.  And considering the fact that a chasuble-less alb is no more historic than a black robe, I for one will not judge a pastor for using one over the other.  What I will insist on, however, is that we educate ourselves concerning the meaning of all these vestments, along with their historical development and use.  After all, it doesn't bode well for our attempts to catechize the next generation if we even can't tell the difference between a cassock and a preaching robe.


1. Vesting Prayers
For the sake of reference and understanding the symbolic nature of these vestments,  Wikipedia provides a useful list of the vesting prayers in Latin and English as per the Roman Rite.  While these were largely abolished in Lutheran use after the Reformation, they are still useful in deciphering the meaning of each vestment, all of which seem entirely Evangelical:

The Celebrant first says, whilst washing his hands:
Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendam omnem maculam ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire.
'Give virtue to my hands, O Lord, that being cleansed from all stain I might serve you with purity of mind and body.'

Then whilst putting on the amice, which he first puts on his head, and then over his shoulders:

Impone, Domine, capiti meo galeam salutis, ad expugnandos diabolicos incursus.
'Place upon me, O Lord, the helmet of salvation, that I may overcome the assaults of the devil.'

At the alb:

Dealba me, Domine, et munda cor meum; ut, in sanguine Agni dealbatus, gaudiis perfruar sempiternis.
'Purify me, Lord, and cleanse my heart so that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may enjoy eternal bliss.'

At the cincture:

Praecinge me, Domine, cingulo puritatis, et exstingue in lumbis meis humorem libidinis; ut maneat in me virtus continentiae et castitatis.
'Gird me, O Lord, with the girdle of purity, and extinguish in me all evil desires, that the virtue of chastity may abide in me.'

At the maniple:

Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris.
'Grant, O Lord, that I may so bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow, that I may receive the reward for my labors with rejoicing.'

At the stole, which he crosses over his breast:

Redde mihi, Domine, stolam immortalitatis, quam perdidi in praevaricatione primi parentis: et, quamvis indignus accedo ad tuum sacrum mysterium, merear tamen gaudium sempiternum.
'Restore unto me, O Lord, the stole of immortality, which was lost through the guilt of our first parents: and, although I am unworthy to approach Your sacred Mysteries, nevertheless grant unto me eternal joy.'

At the chasuble:
Domine, qui dixisti: Iugum meam suave est et onus meum leve: fac, ut istud portare sic valeam, quod consequar tuam gratiam. Amen.
'O Lord, Who said: My yoke is easy and My burden light: grant that I may bear it well and follow after You with thanksgiving. Amen.'

2. Images.
  All images in the public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.


  1. I am in favor of formal liturgical wear rather than the academic or Geneva gown. At the same time, an undue concern with liturgical finery and the minutiae of worship can be used to mask apathy toward sound doctrine. I have seen a great growth in interest in worship, but that has not been matched by study of the Confessions, Luther, and the Concordists.

  2. I assure you that is not the case at this blog, good doctor. :)

  3. I can agree with both of you. There are many who are great advocates of confessional Lutheran worship, yet will cede the central doctrine to Huber's philosophical heresy. After that it becomes either an ignorance of what the Synod currently confesses on the chief doctrine or a willful, erroneous, blind holding to the Synodical position because, well, it's the Synodical position dang it! My opinion.

  4. I'll take the black Geneva over a white anything any day of the week, including Easter. But that's just the way things were back in the good ole days when I was young and impressionable, and all was well in the WELS. The preachers wore black Genevas, and we all sang out of TLH. Then one day in the Fall of '93, the switch was magically flipped and I knew the WELS was riding irretrievably off into the abyss: those of us who sang out of CW had preachers who wore white, while the other poor ...s with praise bands had preachers in blazers at best. No wonder Good Friday is my favorite day of the church year. That, and all those hymns with flats in the key signatures. There's just something about somber music that lends itself to confessional Lutheranism.

    During the installation service of one WELS preacher I know, he overheard an off-hand remark made by one of the members sitting up front regarding the out-moded black Geneva he was wearing. So, during the announcements at the end, he mentioned that the color of the vestments worn relates to the color of one's hair. He wore black because of his dark hair, the older preacher wore white because of his gray hair, and "you, sir, ought to be completely naked!" (The man was bald.)

    All tongue in cheek, of course.