Last Sunday as I was wearing the customary Rose or Pink Vestments for Mass on Laetare Sunday, I thought it might be a good time for a refresher for us all as to why we have all of these vestments. The main vestment that a priest wears at Mass is called the Chasuble. The word chasuble comes from the Medieval Latin casubula, a by-word of the Late Latin casula, which denoted a cloak with a hood. Casula is a diminutive form of casa, which means ‘house’. A casula and a house provide shelter from the rain. The chasuble originated from the clothing worn by the lower classes in Ancient Greece. This garment was later adapted by the Romans. In ancient times the chasuble was often much larger than the ones we have today. Saint Augustine of Hippo who lived in the early 400’s, compares chasubles of his day to “a hut that encompasses the whole body.” It had a round or cone-like shape with a hole in the center for the head to stick through. The chasuble was used by bishops and priests from the sixth century onwards, both as an outer garment and as a liturgical garment. The first to mention liturgical practice is Saint Germanus, Bishop of Paris. In a letter, dating from 554.
The main vestment of a deacon is called a dalmatic and it is distinguished from the chasuble by the fact that it has sleeves. This vestment also comes from Roman tradition. It is based on a style of clothing that was worn especially by servants to the imperial court. For a time, wearing the dalmatic was reserved for the Bishop of Rome and his deacons. Later, bishops and deacons of other dioceses were given permission to wear this typical Roman dress. For centuries, it was custom for bishops to wear both a dalmatic and a tunic under their chasuble.
The purpose of these vestments at Mass is both to add beauty, but more importantly they are reminders that the Mass is not the action of the priest but is primarily an act of Jesus. The vestments cover over the priest, putting a veil over him and his personality so that the person of the priest doesn’t distract us from the person of Christ who acts in the priest. Obviously, the priest is still there, and we can still see him and hear him, but the liturgical vestments are signs that the priest takes on the person of Christ in a real way during the celebration of Mass. In the not-too-distant past there was a custom that made this reality even more apparent. At the homily the priest would take off the chasuble and drape it on the altar signifying that at this point he was speaking, and when he would place the chasuble back to pray the rest of the Mass prayers, it was now the person of Christ speaking in the words of the Liturgy.