V. Rev. Fr. Barouyr Shernezian
While attending the Divine Liturgy, many people ask themselves, “why do the Armenian clergy wear colorful and rich vestments to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, when our Lord Jesus Christ wore simple clothes?” What is the meaning behind the rich vestments? Jesus criticized the Pharisees for enlarging or “exaggerating” their garments, to be seen by men and receive honors (Matthew 23:5). The Holy Scriptures teach us that God speaks through simplicity.
We often do not learn the spirituality or the meaning behind the priestly vestments. We may think of it as choice of clothing for priests and bishops. We will explore the meaning behind the priestly vestments in general, and further examine the details behind each vestment. We will explore this topic in the context of the Divine Liturgy.
In the book of Exodus, God instructs Moses the prophet on how to consecrate his brother Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel, and what garments they should wear as priests (Exodus 28). God instructs Moses, “you shall also make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet: HOLINESS TO THE LORD. And you shall put it on a blue cord, that it may be on the turban; it shall be on the front of the turban.” (Exodus 28:36-37). The priestly vestments signified holiness that is dedicated to the Lord, requesting that He accept what it is offered to Him by the people, who are not holy. Original sin corrupted everything in the world. Consecration makes them acceptable to the Holiest God. We have a direct through-line from Aaron’s priestly vestments in Exodus to the vestments that our clergy wear to celebrate the Divine Liturgy today.
This connection is reflected in the prayers of vesting. The celebrant prays a special prayer before donning each item of his vestments. The following is one portion:
Lord almighty, having granted us to put on the same heavenly garment, make me, your useless servant, also worthy at this hour when I make bold to approach the same spiritual service of your glory, so that I may divest myself of all ungodliness, which is a vile garment, and that I may be adorned with your light. . .Grant me to enter with priestly glory upon the ministry of your holy things together with those who have kept your commandments without sinning.
The priestly garments do not reflect the priest’s worthiness, but rather signify the Lord’s purity, holiness and glory. The priestly vestments protect the celebrant from his own sinfulness, so that he can enter the sanctuary and celebrate the Divine Liturgy. His sinful nature prevents him from standing in the presence of God and carrying the body and the blood of the Lord. Holiness does not coexist with the sinfulness, but rather cleanses it. This is the main reason why the clergy wear rich garments, to signify the beauty of God’s glory and holiness.
Isiah expresses the concept of holiness as a garment as follows, “I delight greatly in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God; For He has clothed me … in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10).
This concept continues in the New Testament. One of the best-known examples can be found in the parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son returns from the ‘sinful world,’ his father told his servants to “bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet” (Luke 15:22). This signifies how the Savior will save us from our sinfulness. It also symbolizes Christ covering us with His body (holiness), so that we will be able enter Home (the Heavenly Kingdom) and celebrate our new life with Him.
During the transfiguration of our Lord, we see how Christ’s glory made His clothes glow: His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light (Matthew 17:2). In light of this image, priestly vestments remind us that it is not the priests’ glory that shines during the liturgy, but God’s glorious light. In addition to the celebrant, all the servants on the Holy Altar wear beautiful vestments.
All clergy, either married or celibate, from deaconess through the highest rank in the Armenian Church wear a black clerical robe. The black signifies that the world is dead for the clergy-member, and he grieves for the sinfulness of the world. He should wear the same black robe every day to show that he has nothing to be honored for. Sunday, however, is the Lord’s resurrection day. Therefore, the celebrant enters the service as a prodigal son, only made worthy to be there by the grace of God. He is the only one who can sanctify us. All the glory and sanctification be to Him! Amen!