Clothed with Christ (Part 1 of 3)

This is part 1 in the series “Clothed with Christ” exploring liturgical vestments and contemporary church practice. This series is the fruit of my final project for Dr. Sue Rozeboom’s Worship of Yesterday for Today class at Western Theological Seminary.

Everything Communicates Something

Are you familiar with the mantra “everything communicates something”? Take a moment to consider the images in the slideshow below. What do you see?

If you guessed uniforms, you’re right! Okay, that wasn’t a challenge. But what else is communicated by those uniforms? You can tell by the style of the jersey what sport it belongs to. The colors are important—they communicate what team or what club they represent. Even the numbers are important as they communicate the identity of the person wearing the jersey in competition. And by knowing the player, the team, or the sport, all manner of parallel stories, feelings, and memories emerge. Everything communicates something.

As a former athlete myself, and as an avid sports enthusiast, these jerseys also mean something more. When I put on a uniform before a game, something shifts in the energy of my identity. When I put on a uniform, I put on a tradition. I become someone new for the length of time I wear the jersey; I become a part of something greater than myself.

But don’t just take my word for it.

One of the most memorable lines from Miracle, the movie about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, is about a jersey:

If you play your heart out for what your jersey says on the front, everyone will remember what the jersey says on the back.

Brandi Chastain, a former US women’s soccer player who is perhaps most famous for taking off her jersey after scoring the winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, recalls,

I remember how proud I was to put on my training jersey and go out onto the field.

Baseball player Eric Davis once said,

Just putting on my uniform keeps me going.

Hall-of-Fame baseball manager Tommy Lasorda treasured his time in uniform,

I love doubleheaders. That way I get to keep my uniform on longer.

And Derek Jeter, captain of the New York Yankees, simply prays,

God, I hope I wear this jersey forever.

Do you notice the pastoral and theological echoes in these statements? I sure do. Uniforms give us a dream, the hope of a future triumph that energizes us to be diligent in our practice today. We “play” (read, “live”) for something greater than ourselves (okay, certainly not true for all athletes) and even pray that this “mantle” is not taken from us. And there’s even something of eschatological hope. Baseball Hall-of-Fame player Gary Carter once said,

That’s what every young kid thinks about when they first put on a uniform—is to play in the Major League and then, ultimately, play in a World Series.

It’s not just that I put my jersey on today, it’s that I put on today so that I can prepare and be ready for the final goal…to participate in the final glory!

But just in case you’re still not convinced of this identity metamorphosis that takes place simply from donning a particular, if peculiar, garment, here’s one final quote from the late Steve Sabol, the pioneer of juggernaut NFL Films, the production company that has won more than 100 Emmy’s (of which Steve personally won 35), who witnessed,

I have loved football as an almost mythic game since I was in the fourth grade. To me, the game wasn’t even grounded in reality. The uniform turned you into a warrior: being on a team, the mythology of physical combat, the struggle against the elements, the narrative of the game.

Wow! I rest my case. Now for my closing argument to the jury, a turn to more divine matters.

Let’s try one more exercise. Consider the image below. What do you see?

pope-comparisonThis is a comparison of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis. I don’t want to start a theological or church politic debate, but simply notice the differences. Notice the ornate vestments worn by Benedict. Notice the simple appearance of Francis. And while not related to vestments, it is also interesting to note the difference in the chairs. By all appearances these two men have very different styles of leadership. Everything communicates something.

Put On Christ

Over the course of many centuries, the church universal has developed varying practices of liturgical vestments. Some ornate; others understated. Some well-known; others barely noticed. Some incorporating varying degrees of magical mystery; but all seeking to hide ourselves in Christ (Colossians 3:1-4).

Paul writes elsewhere urging Christians to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14), and he continues this stream of thought in his letter to the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27). The NIV renders that translation, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

The practice of liturgical vestments has deep roots in the imagery of baptism itself! As I near seminary graduation, I have been thinking more about how I will dress as a pastor. Liturgical vestments have been important in the church, but as many contemporary evangelical churches are adapting “low-church” models, specific liturgical vestments are disappearing and pastors are choosing to wear the regular clothing of the congregation. Though I share a similar perspective—I have never preached in so much as a stole, much less a robe—I will use this blog series for further reflection as to how to be mindful of my attire and what it communicates to the congregation. Our vestments may not truly be magical, but they are intentional, whether in a high or low church model, and I want to at least begin thinking through how our pastoral attire might, in any event, be fittingly devotional of the task to which we have been called.

In the two posts to follow (Part 2, Part 3), I will first explore a bit of the historical tradition of liturgical vestments, paying particular attention to adaptation and development within my own Reformed, Calvinist tradition. Then I will reflect on the contemporary approach to liturgical vestments, paying particular attention to my own denomination, and lay out ways in which I hope my pastoral attire will be fittingly devotional and always intentional for the gospel that I preach.

About Joshua

Joshua is the lead pastor of Massapequa Reformed Church (RCA) on Long Island, New York. He and his wife Kathryn have one young daughter. He loves coffee and board games, ice cream and sports—he's an avid fan of the Green Bay Packers, UConn Huskies, Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers.
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