Behind the Icon Screen: Praying over the Vestments

Out of sight of the folks in the nave, the priest moves to the second pre-Matins service, the Vesting prayers. These prayers, recited as the clergy put on each article of their vestments, are all based in Scripture. Of course, we laypeople don’t need to worry about this sort of thing when we prepare for the work God has given us. Instead, St. Paul instructs us to put on spiritual armor. We’ll get to that after we consider the clergy’s preparation.

Because the Vesting occurs as a separate service right after the Kairos prayers, the priest again venerates the Gospelbook and the altar by kissing them before he begins. He then proceeds to the vestry, a room to the side of the altar. Some of the items, like the tunic and cuffs, are worn by deacons, priests, and bishops, then additional items are added according to their rank. We’ll concentrate on the priest’s vestments here.

The Tunic

If we could go back in time to the Roman and Byzantine empires, we would see that the tunic is the everyday dress of the man on the street, with shorter tunics (above the knee) for slaves, soldiers, and others who do a lot of physical work. Longer tunics were worn by the higher classes, and those who worked near the emperor wore richly decorated tunics. The pattern of highly decorated tunics for clergy was set by the 6th century, and there have been few changes since then.

[Photo from St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Church, Beaver Falls, PA]

If you know anything about Orthodoxy, this shouldn’t surprise you. The ancient Faith is not a fan of innovation.

Each time a clergy member puts on a new part of his vestments, he blesses it with the sign of the cross and kisses it, saying, “Let us pray to the Lord. Lord, have mercy.” 

The priest then holds his tunic, or sticharion in Greek, in his left hand. He blesses it with the sign of the cross, kisses it, and prays from Isaiah 61:10:

My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for he has clothed me with a garment of righteousness and has covered me with a robe of gladness. He has crowned me as a bridegroom, and has adorned me as a bride with jewels always, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

The deacon’s tunic is actually more ornate than the priest’s. One of the reasons is that his tunic is quite visible, whereas the priest’s is hidden under other layers. The priest’s tunic is white, like a baptismal garment. It has a simple, Mandarin-style collar with a slit in front, sort of like a henley shirt but without all the buttons, trimmed in gold brocade. (I’m not a seamstress, so I don’t know all the correct terms.) 

Cuffs

I’ve seen a few vesting videos on YouTube and have noticed that some priests put their cuffs next; others put them on later. But the prayers remain the same.

The cuffs are called epimanichia in Greek, which in an excess of literalism, means “over the hands.” They are ornate, matching the pattern of the outer vestments, and are laced up. Their  practical function is to hold the sleeves of the tunic in place.

All ranks of the clergy wear the tunic and cuffs, and they repeat a prayer from Exodus 15:6 as they first lace up the right cuff:

[Photo of priest’s cuffs from the website of St. John the Evangelist Orthodox Church, Beaver Falls, PA]

 

Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in strength. Your right hand, O Lord, had crushed the enemies. In the fullness of Your glory You have shattered the adversaries, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Then the left, from Psalm 119:73: 

Your hands have made me and have fashioned me. Grant me understanding and I shall learn from Your commandments. Now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Father Lou Christopoulos, chancellor of the Metropolis of Denver, said in a video of the vesting prayers that the cuffs remind him, “We are called to be the hands of Christ in the world for those in need,” and that this is true for all believers, not just priests. He also points out that Velcro would be nice. But Velcro doesn’t really shout “Byzantium,” does it?

Mark of a Deacon

[Photo of deacon with his orarion from Wikipedia.org]

After the basic tunic and cuffs are put on, here’s where some differentiation comes in. A deacon will then place a long scarf, called an orarion, over his left shoulder and around his body. This liturgical garment is unique to deacons, so it’s a helpful identifier. Whenever my parish has a guest clergyman assisting at the altar—which happens quite frequently—I check out the vestments. As soon as I see the orarion, I know that our visitor is a deacon.

Notice during the service that the deacon lifts up the end of his scarf with his right hand when speaking, then he lowers it. This practice is a continuation of a custom from the Roman Empire: an orator, such as a senator, would lift his hand when he had something important to say. You will see this gesture in many ancient Roman statues. So when the scarf is lifted, for example, during the prayers of a litany, that is our signal to pay attention.

Mark of a Priest

[Photo of stole from Orthodox Wiki]

The deacon has his orarion, but the priest wears a stole, or epitrachelion, instead. It is shorter than an orarion and is worn buttoned around the neck. The stole is stitched together at various intervals and hangs down to the priest’s ankles. Across the bottom are two rows of fringe representing the souls entrusted to the priest: one row for the souls of the living, and one for the dead. The prayer that accompanies the stole is from Psalm 132:2, and some translations use “fringe” instead of “hem”:

Blessed is God who pours out His grace upon His priests, as myrrh upon the head that ran down the beard, the beard of Aaron, which ran down to the hem of his garment.

Metropolitan Nektarios of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia writes,

The epitrachelion symbolises the spiritual yoke of the priesthood and the grace of the Holy Spirit which flows abundantly upon officiating clergyman, yet it also signifies the double portion of grace bestowed upon a priest, for the celebration of the Mysteries. — “Concerning the Wearing of Vestments,” Orthodox Christianity website

The stole is the liturgical garment that specifically signals the wearer is a priest, and he wears it at all services he conducts. You might have noticed that when you go to confession, even if your priest is wearing only pants and his clerical collar, he will put on the stole as well for the sacrament, using it to cover you as you kneel at the end and he prays over you.

The Blessing of the Microphone. No, I’m Not Kidding.

Okay, maybe not. [Photo by zs_photography_s on Pixabay]

Next comes, believe it or not, the prayer for the microphone—obviously not a custom in ancient Rome. You may remember the old joke:

Question: How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Change?!

This is more accurate.

 

Yet there is one addition to the vesting prayers that recognizes the use of technology: the blessing of the microphone. I’m not sure how old this addition is, but 20th century is a good guess. When the priest clips on his mic, he prays from Psalm 18:3-4:

There are no tongues nor words in which their voices are not heard. Their sound hath gone forth into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.

The Belt

[Photo from St. John the Evangelist Church]

Next comes the zone (ZOH’nay), or belt, which holds everything in place, accompanied by a prayer from Psalm 18:32: 

Blessed is God who girds me with strength and makes my way blameless always, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

 

That Rhombus-Shaped Thingie

[Bishops epigonation featuring his patron saint, the Apostle Mark. From Orthodoxwiki.org.]

Some priests also wear the epigonation, which means “on the knee,” since it rests near the knee—yet another very literal name. The epigonation is the stiff, rhombus-shaped piece of cloth that hangs on the priest’s right. It shows an additional rank of responsibility, such as confessor, for the priest who wears it. As he straps it over his left shoulder, he prays from Psalm 44:3:

Gird your sword upon Your thigh, O Mighty One, and in Your splendor and beauty string Your bow. Prosper and reign because of truth, meekness, and righteousness. Your right hand shall lead You wondrously always, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Cloak, or Stole

Finally, the priest dons his philonion, a cloak, or stole, that goes over the other vestments. In some Western Christian traditions, the equivalent garment is called a chasuble. I think of it as a liturgical poncho. The hem originally fell to the feet, and we can see this longer version in icons of clergy saints. Roman Catholic priests still wear a chasuble that is long in front, but since the 15th century the cloak for Orthodox priests has been shortened to waist level to allow free movement of the hands.

Orthodox vestments may be complicated, but evidently the Church doesn’t believe that practicality conflicts with spirituality.

Fr. Lou Christopoulos, wearing his philonion over other vestments. [Photo by Rob Horner]

Philonion is the Greek word that St. Paul used in his Second Letter to Timothy, when he instructs his young protege, “Bring the cloak (philonion) that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments” (4:13). When putting on the cloak, the priest prays from Psalm 131:9:

Your priests, O Lord, shall clothe themselves with righteousness, and Your saints shall rejoice with joy, always, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.

The Cross

Finally, the priest puts on his pectoral cross. In the Greek tradition, a bishop gives this cross to specific priests for faithful service, but in Russian churches, all priests wear a silver cross. I’m not sure about Antiochian and other practices. The priest makes the sign of the cross over himself with it, kisses it, and drapes the necklace around his neck, reciting Jesus’ words from Mark 8:34:

“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

 

Physical Vestments and Spiritual Armor

The priest is now ready to prepare the bread and wine, then serve the Liturgy. The three services of preparation don’t really have a direct application for a gal or guy in the pews. But the lesson of preparing our hearts and bodies, of being reverent in the temple, is a useful one. When we’re getting ready for church after a poor night’s sleep, corraling cranky kids, begging teenagers to get up, or worrying about a million things as we drive, it’s difficult to “set aside all earthly cares.”

But the Vesting service reminds me of St. Paul’s admonition for us in Ephesians 6 to put on the “whole armor of God.” After urging various people to obey those in authority over them, and reminding those authorities to serve the Lord in their dealings with others, St. Paul encourages his brothers and sisters to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” and to “put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” He continues,

Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints. (Eph. 6:14-18)

[Photo by AlLes on Pixabay]

I will never wear a baptismal tunic to work. I sometimes wear a cross necklace that’s fairly large, but it’s not a pectoral cross. I am also pretty sure that my future does not call for a suit of armor at the ready in my closet. But all of us, clergy and laity alike, can clothe ourselves spiritually, ready to fight against the evil one through the power and grace of the Lord. So maybe next Sunday, if I’ve corralled my runaway thoughts, I will think about these lessons as our clergy, in their beautiful vestments, lead us in worship and in preparation for receiving our Lord in the Eucharist.

[Image from Southern Orders blog]

***

We’ll save the final preparation service of the Proskomide, where the priest prepares the bread and the wine that will become the Body and Blood of Christ, for next time. Because so many excellent explanations of this service are available on the internet, we will instead concentrate on the ways that the Gifts, and later the transformed Body and Blood of our Lord, are handled, honored, and protected—before, during, and after the Divine Liturgy. This reverence for the elements is a definite change from the crackers and grape juice of my past.

In the meantime, I am headed next week to the Oregon Coast for a writers’ retreat. Because I will be away for a week, I doubt I will be able to put the new blog post together in time to publish two weeks from now. Miracles do happen, but I might need three weeks, so we will probably consider the handling of the bread and the wine on August 10th. I hope you can join me.

4 comments:

  1. I see the priest put on and take off the philonion, or outer garment, a few times during the service. Why?

    1. That is a great question! After my vacation, I will try to find the answer for you.

  2. Very interesting! Enjoy your retreat!

    Is there a significance to different colours of vestments being worn on different days? (I assume so of course….probably it’s not a fashion statement or because something was at the dry cleaners. Purely aesthetically though I do enjoy the colour and detail of the Orthodox Church..,.)

    1. Thank you! Yes, there is a significance. I was thinking about this as a topic for a future blog post. I’m not sure exactly when, though. In the meantime, when the Dormition fast begins on August first, notice the beautiful, sky-blue vestments that the priests wear. There is a connection there. Stay tuned!

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