In the Orthodox Church, you’ll see specialised vestments being worn by the clergy every week. Let’s explore what these vestments are, what they mean, their purpose and where they came from.
The Purpose and Meaning of Vestments
Vestments serve to hide and submerge the personality of the priest so that worshippers, seeing Christ through the vestments, may know that it is He, Jesus, who teaches and sanctifies through the priest. St. John Chrysostom writes, “When you see the priest offering the sacrifice, do not think of it as if it were he that is doing this; it is the hand of Christ invisibly stretched forth”.
The wearing of a robe symbolizes the robe of righteousness with which we are clothed after our baptism, “having been baptised into Christ we have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27), we have nothing in common with the world, we are to be holy unto God, having stripped off the old man and put on the Christian armour (see Colossians 3:9). A white robe worn after Baptism signifies this same thing. We are reminded also of the “best robe”, which the father conferred upon the prodigal son when he returned home.
Clothed by the Spirit
The vestments serve to remind clergy that they are to be clothed in the Spirit. For this reason as clergy clothe themselves with each of their vestments they are required to pray verses from God’s word which disclose the deeper meaning of each particular article.The use of vestments reminds the priest that he is to come into God’s presence, not as he is, with ordinary street dress, but better than he is, clothed with Christ, with His love, forgiveness and humility.
Byzantine vestments also hold a kind of functional mystical significance in that their symbolism is directed toward ‘transforming’ the celebrant as he assumes them for liturgical celebration. In accordance with the office of preparation for the liturgy, the clergyman takes on the garments of the divine. The priest is girded in purity and his outer appearance tells the congregation of the ‘new man’ as he appears in the liturgy. The deacon, moving his stole (orarion) in the manner of the movements of the angel wings, prepares the congregation for the heavenly experience. And indeed the bishop becomes the icon of Christ, as the congregation is lifted into the divine presence. It is not unusual for worshippers to kiss the hem of a cleric’s vestments (usually the sticharion or phelonian of the priest) since the liturgical experience lifts up the material world (and material substance) and sanctifies it. The vestments themselves become mystically the wings of angels, the robe of Christ, and the glorious garments of the Saints.
A full length, smooth undergarment worn by all ranks of clergy, which represents the garment of salvation.
The Epitrachelion (or Priest’s Stole)
worn around the priest’s neck represents the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Originally this was made of wool (from sheep) to symbolise the pastoral office of the priest, witnessing to the fact that the ministers of the Church live and act solely for the members of Christ’s flock. The priest places his stole upon the sick person in prayer or the penitent in confession, it is believed to represent the fullness of priestly grace.
The Orarion (or Deacon’s Stole)
The orarion is the name given to the deacon’s stole: orare means to pray. In addition to the angelic symbolism of lifting this in prayer it also represents the cloth used by Jesus in the washing of feet, and was thus symbolic of Christ’s role as servant of His people and of the similar role of the deacon as servant of the Church.
The Phelonian (or Chasuble)
The outer garment worn by priests. It is without sleeves and often embroidered with a cross on the back. Worn for the celebration of all sacraments and liturgies, funerals and special services. The phelonian is seamless, like the Lord’s tunic. St. Paul refers to his phelonian in 2 Timothy 4:13, although this is thought to be used in a secular sense as it was formal ware for Roman citizens. The phelonian developed into chasuble and cope (a cloak worn over the chasuble) in the west but remained one garment in the east. Different colours are used in the west to signify the seasons of the church year.
The Dalmatic (or Sakkos)
The outer garment worn by bishops and deacons, it is a short tunic with half sleeves.
Priests and bishops wear a special belt to hold the vestments in place. When putting on the belt the clergy say psalms which remind them that it is God who ‘girds them with strength’ to fulfil their service.
Special cuffs for all clergy were added to keep sleeves out of the way during the divine services. When putting on their cuffs the clergy read lines from the psalms reminding them that their hands belong to God.
The Bishop's Crown
When the Turks captured the Christian empire in the 15th century the Christian bishops of the east were given civil rule over all Christians under Turkish dominion. The bishops began to dress as the civil rulers used to dress. This included the imperial crown. Later the wearing of the crown came to be regarded as a sign of Christian victory reminding us that the saints will one day receive their crowns and reign with Christ.
So, where did vestments come from?
There’s a variety of theories as to where vestments came from. Let’s look at three of the most common theories on the origin of vestments.
One school of thought that traces the use of Christian vestments to the ceremonial dress of the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament. Exodus 28:4, 40, and 42 talks of holy vestments for the priest’s office, an embroidered coat and girdles, and bonnets for glory and beauty. The same chapter mentions bells along the hem of Aaron’s robe. The sound of the bells tinkling reassured everyone of his presence as he ministered alone in the Holy of Holies. Tradition tells us that a rope was tied to Aaron’s body in case he died there, as no other person could enter that sacred space, so the rope could be used to pull him out should it be necessary. Orthodox Bishops today still wear robes adorned with bells.
A second theory argues that the origin of Christian vestments is to be found in the ordinary dress of the Roman citizens in the first few centuries of Christianity. After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 the ordinary people wore a new type of attire, but the clergy retained the older form of dress, finding the change less suitable to the dignity of the divine office. However certain modifications occurred over time to make the attire more suitable for Christian worship. The clergy therefore became an identifiable class of citizens set apart from the worshipping congregation. There is evidence that separate apparel for clergy was certainly in use during the 5th century. We can therefore conclude that the idea of a special form of liturgical dress germinated in the first 4 centuries of Christianity. This is called the “Antequarian” theory for the origin of Christian vestments—meaning “from the study of antiques or antiquity”.
The Byzantine Court
There is also the influence of the Byzantine court to consider. The silk and gold liturgical dress worn in the Eastern Church came from the Byzantine court. The Byzantine church became an integral part of the empire with similar authority structures, the Patriarch corresponding to the Emperor and the Bishops to the provincial officials. The manner of dress reflected this.
The general trend in the Orthodox Church today, regarding vestments, is towards simplification. However, liturgical vesting is essential. Worship is believed to connect us with the glorious Kingdom of God, a Kingdom which is yet to come but which is already with us in the mystery of Christ’s Church. Vestments, like icons, are windows to heaven through which we see Christ.
1 Orthodox Liturgical Dress by Archimandrite Chrysostomos, Holy Cross Press, Brookline, MA, 1981, p. 71