Exodus 28 details how the garments of the high priest and other Levitical priests were to be made and how they were to be worn. Aaron’s garments were to be made “to consecrate him” for God’s priesthood (v. 3). “Consecrate” is a fancy word for making something holy, that is, setting it apart for a holy purpose. As high priest, Aaron would “bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgement on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD”; and on that same breast piece would be the Urim and Thummim “when he goes in before the LORD. Thus, Aaron shall bear the judgement of the people of Israel on his heart before the LORD regularly” (vv. 29, 30). In this way, Aaron was set apart for service to the people of Israel as their mediator between God and man for the forgiveness of sins.
Our liturgical garments in the Lutheran Church have a long history stemming from this chapter in Exodus. Why? For the same reason as the Tabernacle discussed in the previous pastoral thought—pastors are consecrated (set apart) for service to God’s people on Christ’s behalf for the forgiveness of sins. This does not make pastors holier than you. Rather, they are set apart for you. The pastor’s purpose is to point you to the One who is Most Holy: Jesus Christ.
As noted in a different pastoral thought, Rev. Dr. Norman Nagel is worth quoting again, “Pastors are anonymous, interchangeable instruments. It is good that we cover them up with vestments, and not pay attention to them but only to what they have been given to preach and teach and do.” While the vestments your pastor wear set him apart as the one who has local authority to forgive your sins (as well as withholding forgiveness, John 20:21-23), the purpose of the vestments are not to focus you on the pastor but rather on Christ. Just as the garments of the OT high priest served their own functions, so do our pastoral garments today.
The alb, which is the Latin word for white, is the white robe you usually see him wear. It symbolises the purity of Christ. Thus, when you see your pastor’s white alb, it ought to evoke the pure Christ who is serving you through your pastor. One could also argue that it symbolises the white robe that all God’s saints receive in their Baptism and what we see them wearing in John’s vision (Revelation 7:14). The cincture, which is the rope you see tied around his waist, is simply there for practical purposes to make the excess fabric look neater. Anybody can wear the alb and cincture when they’re serving in the liturgy of the Divine Service, such as acolytes. This goes well with the saints who wear their baptismal white robes in Revelation.
The stole is worn by ordained clergy only, which symbolises their ordination and the yoke of the pastoral office. This yoke, the stole, should evoke Jesus’ inviting words, “Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). The pastor’s stole/yoke is incredibly light (literally). Thus, your pastor is there to be Christ to you, to whom you can go to lay your heavy yoke and burdens, who will then give them to the Lord. The colour of the stole is determined by the Church Year and special festivals. For example, the season of Pentecost is green, yet even though Reformation Day falls during this season, on this festival day we wear red vestments.
Sometimes a pastor will wear a chasuble with colours also determined by the Church Year we’re in. I like to call this the pastoral poncho! Not every pastor will wear this because they’re extremely expensive and they can make you awfully warm and sweat a lot (I sweat enough with just the alb and stole on!). These are also worn only by ordained clergy.
You will also see your pastor wearing a pectoral cross that hangs between the two halves of the stole. If it’s not apparent enough that your pastor’s vestments are to make you think of Christ, the pectoral cross should at least make it irrevocably clear for you. All these are worn during the Divine Service, and there are other kinds of vestments that can be worn, but these are the ones we typically see used in most of our congregations.
Lastly is the clerical shirt and collar your pastor wears every day (hopefully). Some pastors refuse to wear them for unconvincing reasons, but they hold several advantages over a suit and tie or normal, casual clothing. First, they indicate who the pastor is. This is helpful for three reasons.
- It reminds the regular attending members what he is there for (we’ll get to that with its symbolism in a moment).
- It’s easier for newcomers to quickly identify who the pastor is rather than awkwardly asking strangers who the pastor is (especially for introverts).
- When a pastor visits a member with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, they always know who he is—that he is a pastor—even though they might not remember he’s their pastor and what his name is. I’ve visited a lot of people with dementia, and every time I’ve visited them with my clerical on—even as their brand spanking new pastor—they knew I was a pastor bringing them the Word of God and the forgiveness of sins even though they couldn’t remember my name and the name of their church.
The second advantage has to do with the clerical’s symbolism. The black shirt symbolises sin, reminding you that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness and that the pastor is a sinner as well. The white collar around his throat symbolises that he is bringing you the pure Word of God and, therefore, to speak to you the forgiveness of sins. Furthermore, when the white alb covers the clerical, this symbolises Christ’s righteousness covering your sin by virtue of your Baptism.
A suit and tie cannot do this; he looks no different than a salesman. (On that note, I beg you, please do not liken pastors to salesmen. We don’t sell God’s Word!) Normal civilian clothing also cannot evoke the message of these symbols because the pastor looks no different than any ordinary many off the street or barista at a Starbucks. Even though the pastor is an ordinary man, he is not ordinary in the sense that he has been consecrated—set apart—for holy service, and what he wears should signify this. When you see your pastor wear the clerical, it reminds you that he is the guy whom Christ has given local authority to bring you to repentance and forgive you your sins. A suit and tie or normal clothing make this rather ambiguous.
In summary, the vestments and clerical have historically served as reminders that (a) the pastor is your servant/shepherd in Christ, and (b) everything he preaches, teaches, and does is in the stead and command of Christ.