Friday, June 27, 2014
My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about vestments and clergy apparel:
Q: As I visit churches, I notice that some clergy wear robes varying kinds, and others do not wear robes. I’ve also noticed some pastors who wear a special uniform when visiting or teaching while others dress in casual or business attire. Can you explain these differences and the reasons behind them?
Pastoral garments are a tradition that has evolved and regressed with great frequency throughout Church history. For example, the Lutheran tradition has seen at least 3 separate varieties of pastoral robes come and go over the course of the past 100 years.
Some would suggest that the tradition of Christian pastors wearing special clothing when conducting the liturgy dates as far back as St. Paul who asked Timothy to bring a particular cloak with him when he comes to visit him in 2 Timothy 4:13. Beyond this, the tradition of religious clothing has Biblical precedent as far back as the priestly robes employed by the priests who served in the Tabernacle after the Exodus.
Building on these precedents, the particulars of liturgical apparel often begins with churches and clergy holding on to traditions even after the surrounding culture has passed them by. The most obvious example of this is the Clerical Collar that is a familiar mark of pastors in many traditions, particularly Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal, that traditionally includes a black shirt topped with a white banded collar or a white box in front of the Adam’s Apple.
This garment began with the black clothing worn by all educated professionals in the Middle Ages. The white collar or tab began as an undershirt appearing through the opening of the collar or above its top. As the culture left behind this style, it was retained by the clergy and later given a theologically-significant meaning that the pastor himself is a sinner (represented by the black garment) but speaks the holy Word of God to the people (represented by the white portion being located at his voice box). Today it serves primarily as a uniform by which pastors can be identified, much like a chef has his hat and jacket or a doctor has scrubs.
Likewise, the robes seen while conducting the service find their stylistic particulars in older usage. The black robe, sometimes called a Geneva Gown, worn by preachers of some denominations finds its roots in the academic clothing of the Middle Ages, and parallels can still be seen in the Academic Apparel worn by faculty at college ceremonies or the gowns worn the graduates at a High School Commencement. Often those who wear such robes emphasize the pastor’s role as a teacher, professional, or expert in their theology.
The purpose of the white robe worn by pastors of more liturgically-oriented denominations has to do with the belief that the pastor stands as the representative of Jesus Himself while he conducts the ceremonies of the liturgy – speaking Christ’s Words of forgiveness, delivering Christ’s washing in Baptism, and distributing His Body and Blood in the Lord’s Supper. Thus the pastor’s sinful humanity is hidden beneath a white robe, just as Christ is portrayed in Revelation as wearing a white robe, to emphasize that he does not act of His own authority, but instead represents Christ.
While this white robe has its origins in a far ancient era, even its particulars are derived partially from ancient fashions that others had left behind. This is seen as styles which range from a stiff black robe covered by a loose white gown to a wrapped white robe tied with a rope around the waist have their origins in such places as providing warmth to a priest in an unheated sanctuary during a Scandinavian winter to a Roman tunic from the first century.
While these varying forms of clergy apparel often have mundane origins, their continued use bears the intention that they teach something to those who observe their use. So investigation reveals that what appears on the surface to be mere style or tradition is actually infused with a great deal of theology and communicates to us something about what that church or that pastor believes.
Monday, June 23, 2014
Q: When I attend church, I often see Sundays numbered with labels, like Epiphany or Pentecost or Advent. What do these mean, and are they used in all churches?
From the earliest times, the Christian Church began to mark time in a yearly cycle that guided the Church’s preaching to its members. This began with the yearly celebration of the Resurrection, which quickly-expanded to an eight week-long event to coincide with the time Jesus spent living on earth following the Resurrection and the arrival of Pentecost, which is the day that the Apostles first preached in Jerusalem after receiving the Holy Spirit.
Lent was a development that shortly followed, as Christians observed 40 days of fasting to prepare for the Resurrection feast, which mirrored other famous 40s in the Bible, such as the 40 years in the wilderness, the 40 days and nights of rain in the flood, and the 40-day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, many of which serve as the appointed readings on the Sundays during Lent.
Since the ancient world observed death dates more frequently than birth dates, the day of Jesus’ birth was not known, but based on an ancient belief that great figures died on the day of their conception, the Church observed the Annunciation (Gabriel’s announcement of Jesus’ conception to Mary) on March 25, and soon after, began to celebrate Christmas – the festival of the Savior’s birth – 9 month later, on December 25.
Advent, a time of preparation prior to Christmas, centering on themes like the Second Coming of Christ and the events surrounding Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptizer; arose not long afterward. Then Epiphany – beginning on January 6 became a season to emphasize the building revelation of Jesus identity and span the time between Christmas and the beginning of Lent.
So, these seasons, beginning 4 weeks before Christmas and ending 8 weeks after Easter, compose half of the Church Year, and focus somewhat-chronologically on highlights of the life of Jesus. The other half of the Church Year begins with Pentecost (50 days after Easter) and focusses on the life of the Church and the teachings of Jesus. Depending on the date of Easter, this season can be as short as 23 Sundays or as many as 28 Sundays before Advent begins again on the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day, which is November 30.
These seasons are also marked by changes of color in the church – white for Christmas, Easter, and all festivals of Christ, blue for Advent, purple for Lent, red for Pentecost and other festivals of the Church and commemorations of the Apostles, and green for the “Ordinary Time” Sundays which follow Epiphany and Pentecost. Other colors, including gold, black, rose, and scarlet are used in some traditions for particular observances.
Not all denominations and traditions observe these seasons. Some may only celebrate the Resurrection and Christmas, while others might add a few other significant days, but not the complete calendar. However, there has been a renaissance of sorts regarding the Church Year in the past decade, in which less liturgical traditions, such as Baptist and non-denominational congregations have begun to discover this treasure of the ancient Church.
In the congregations which do follow the full calendar, these seasons and their themes are also accompanied by specified readings called a Lectionary. Some congregations observe an older one-year schedule of readings, but over the last 50 years or so, most have transitioned to a three-year lectionary which concentrates on one Gospel (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) each year, and includes sections of John spread throughout the three-year cycle.
In addition to instructing about the life of Christ on a yearly cycle, this also has the benefit of ensuring that the congregation receives a balanced diet of the Scripture each year, since the preacher does not have the potential to focus in only on his favorite subjects. Furthermore, it has the collateral benefit that, with the exception of a few exceptions particular to a given denomination, congregations across denominational lines are following approximately the same thematic structure on any given Sunday.