SMC 31st March 2019
A bishop, now dead, was known among his clergy for saying of some of his priests, “What’s the clue? Brown shoes.” By this he meant that he was never surprised if priests wearing brown shoes for work said something silly or inappropriate. If they did, the response would always come, “What’s the clue? Brown shoes.” Now, black shoes are clearly much smarter for clergy wearing black cassocks but there isn’t really a theological reason for it, other than that you the people of God and God Himself matter enough of the clergy to dress smartly. And it’s this sort of thing I want to talk about this morning.
Believe it or not, when the priest puts these vestments on, he is to say a prayer for each garment. Indeed, it’s good for us all to arrive before Mass so we can say a prayer before Mass begins, to prepare for the encounter we are to have and the worship we are to offer. Anyway, this top thing is called a chasuble. When the priest puts on the chasuble, he prays, “Lord, who said, ‘My yoke is sweet and my burden light,’ grant that I may carry it well so as to merit your grace.” It’s a definite sign of putting something on us, like the image of a yoke, which Jesus spoke of, used to control oxen (Matthew 11:30).
A chasuble should always be worn by a priest celebrating Mass for he comes not as himself but in persona Christi, in the stead of Christ. Jesus decides to work through His ministers, and the clothes - the vestments - the priest wears reminds us he is not just there as himself, and so when we bow to the priest when he walks in and out, we bow not really to him but to the Saviour whom he comes to be for us. The clothes have a symbolism and a teaching quality. If we were in a desert without a chasuble, a priest could still say Mass to nourish the people of God but it ought not to be normal for it to happen.
They’re different colours, of course. Today is pink - not sure it’s my colour! - as a sign that we relax something of the penitential flavour of the Lenten disciplines. Every Sunday is a day when we can feast because it is a day of Resurrection celebration! Purple is the church’s colour of sorrow, of penitence. Worn in Advent and Lent it is also the colour preparing for a royal visitor, either at Christmas or at Easter. When the festivities begin on those days and on other such occasions, the Church is decked in white or gold. Ordinarily, green is worn for most of the Sundays of the year, the ordinary colour of creation, our vocation to grow constantly closer to the Lord. Red is worn on those days when the Church rejoices in her identity as the Spirit-filled community of the redeemed, red being a reminder of the fire in which the Holy Spirit appeared on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11). Red is also worn when the Church remembers the martyrs, those whose blood was poured out for Christ. Black vestments are worn for funeral Masses and All Souls’ day.
The colours are worn by the priests on their chasubles or their stoles, the stole being the long bit of fabric worn under the chasuble and over a cotta on other occasions. And these colours will be the same as those on the altar frontals. It was very good to be reminded at our Study Group on Tuesday that the people of God have always built altars where they have encountered God. We were reading about Abraham being promised that he would have lots of descendants and as a sign of this relationship Abraham builds an altar at Shechem (Genesis 12:8). We don’t just have these as tables which are rather convenient to use, like a coffee table, they remind us that we are a covenanted people, a holy nation.
When I introduced this Traditionalist Catholic sermon series we’ve been having in Lent I spoke about how some of the practices we do in Church were illegal under English civil law a hundred and fifty years ago. The externals - the bells and smells - are important because they tell us something about God and something about us, and I just want to look in turn at those now.
First, something about God. The bells in Church are reminders of when certain things happen and call us back to focus on God. They’re rung when the Spirit descends on the offerings of the bread and wine; they’re rung again when the Lord’s Body and then the Precious Blood is raised by the priest; they’re rung again when the priest saying Mass has consumed the Body and Blood of the Lord to show the sacrifice is complete. We’re to stop fiddling in our handbags, stop thinking about what time we need to put the lamb in the oven, and just know we’re in the presence of God, who made us and nothing else is really worth us giving our attention at that time.
The incense is offered, as priests of old offered incense. The incense is a prayer of sanctification that that which is caught up in our heavenly worship here on earth might be truly of God, other-worldly. Incense was often used in imperial processions when Christian worship first went public in the fourth century and so was an image from the Bible easily adopted by Christians for worship. The Biblical references to incense also remind us about our own vocation to be people of prayer. “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,” implores the Psalmist (Psalm 141:2). Also, our faith is to be so evident to others in the way we behave and speak that it is as if it will give off a sweet smelling odour, as St Paul reminds the Corinthians, “we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (II Corinthians 2:15). The mischievous side in me comes out when, on the rare occasion, people complain about incense and start doing that cough they do. I say that in the life to come, incense is the smell of Heaven (Revelation 8:3) and so if they don’t like it they’ll have to go to the other place…
Yes, we are priestly people. We’re not here running a social club; we’re not here running a small ‘come and sing’ event; we’re not even just saying some prayers or solely here to read the Bible; we’re here to worship, to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1). Each day this week ask yourself how you’re going to live your life as part of a priestly people, offering fragrant worship and lively praises to God and building up His Church. In our Gospel reading a few minutes ago, the younger son abuses his father’s kindness and goes off with the inheritance. When he comes back, one of the signs of his rehabilitation and the forgiveness and love shown to the errant son is the cloak, what he wears. The dad says, “Quick bring out the best robe and put it on him … this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.”
God takes the earthly and redeems it: “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation,” we heard in our second reading from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Our worship in Church symbolises this and the funny things of vestments, bells and smells show we are already partaking of something not of this world, where the cares and the rubbish we have to deal with - and yes, we do have to deal with them - but here they’re stripped of some of the power they hold over us. In our first reading, the Israelites arrived in the promised land and they celebrated passover. They didn’t need the manna anymore because the land they were now inhabiting would support them. Here on our earthly pilgrimage God gives us not manna but the gift of the Mass to nourish us. May we commit to being His priestly people, set apart, a royal nation, offering our lives in sacrifice to God. Amen.