Summary: The garments of the women of the Apocalypse are signs of the festal garment we are clothed with as we take communion together.
Feast of the Assumption
August 15, 2011
Spirit of the Liturgy
The vision of the Apocalypse shared in our first reading today is a scene in a great final struggle between good and evil. The ark of the covenant, kept in the tabernacle in the wilderness, and in the Temple of Jerusalem once it was built, was the central object of worship of the Hebrews. It contained the tablets of the Law, and little bits of the manna that fed the people in the wilderness. It was, however, just a presage of the true Ark of the Covenant. The new Ark held the new Law and the new bread from heaven, Jesus Christ. The new Ark is a woman, Mary, whom Elizabeth hailed as the New Ark with exactly the same words used by David to welcome the Old Ark–David exclaimed “how is it that the Ark of the Covenant comes to me!” Elizabeth shouted “how is it that the mother of my Lord should visit me?” The One by whom the universe, whom all the universe could not contain willed to be contained in the tiny womb of the Blessed Virgin, the woman clothed with the sun and standing on the moon.
The Book of Revelations contrasts this life-giving woman with another woman, symbolic of the decadent culture of death that was the Roman empire. That woman of evil was identified as a prostitute, clothed in imperial purple and the scarlet of the martyrs’ blood. I won’t go into any more detail–read chapter 17 of Revelations for yourself.
The last woman of the Apocalypse is the holy city, the New Jerusalem, adorned as a bride for Jesus, the God-man, her bridegroom. This woman is the church, and that identification is the reason the Church is often referred to as “she,” as Holy Mother Church. These three women, one evil and two good, are identified by their garments, their vestments. The woman of evil clothes herself in garments that will attract others to evil, that will give glory and power to herself. The women of good are clothed by God in garments that attract humankind to good, and give glory and power to the Lamb, the Bridegroom, and to the Father.
In this 48th and last homily on the Spirit of the Liturgy, let’s dwell for a little while on our liturgical vestments. Revelations says that the saints are garbed in white robes, washed white in the blood of the Lamb. White, of course, is the symbol of purity, but it is also the color of the clothing worn by the newly baptized. Baptism takes away all sin and anoints us as prophets, priests and leaders in the manner of Jesus. The white robe was worn by the neophyte for a week after the Easter baptism. Hence the old name for the next Sunday after Easter was “Sunday in white.”
The ordained clergy always wear special vestments at Liturgy–at Mass, at Divine Office, when administering the sacraments. The innermost garment is our baptismal white. The stole is our symbol of office and leadership. The deacon’s stole leaves the right arm free for service. Over all this we wear a garment that “should, first and foremost, make clear” that we are not here as a private person, as N or N, but we stand “in the place of Another–Christ.” What is merely private, merely individual, about us should “disappear and make way for Christ.” (216) In the pagan religions, the priests put on cultic masks of the deity. “For St. Paul, there is no question any more of masks and rituals, but of a process of spiritual transformation. . .Vestments are a reminder of all this, of this transformation in Christ, and of the new community that is supposed to arise from it. Vestments are a challenge” to us clergy to surrender ourselves to the dynamism of breaking out of the capsule of self and being fashioned anew by Christ and for Christ.
Our vestments remind us, and should remind all of us, that what we are here for is to take another step toward our own Resurrection–the resurrection that the Blessed Mother of God already experiences. We experience that in our communion. The old prayer still used in the 1962 rite at communion is normative here: Corpus Domini Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. May the body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy soul unto everlasting life.
When the Prodigal Son returned to his Father, the Father embraced him and gave orders that he be clothed–as the Greek says–in the first robe. The Fathers of the Church read this as a restoration of the innocence given to Adam and Eve in the beginning, as a symbol of the sacraments of initiation. As you come forward for communion, today and every day until you receive the Viaticum that is your waybread to the resurrection, let the Father clothe you with innocence, and embrace you as we all embrace each other in the fellowship of the Church, as Mary will embrace you when you conclude your journey in this valley of tears.