The first time I entered an Orthodox Church one of the first things I noticed most was the vestments. Yes the incense smelled great, the icons were beautiful, and the chant was inspiring, but, my golly, those vestments!
“Since the earliest times, vestments have been worn by Christian clergy in the performance of both the divine services and other functions of the clergy. Depending on their purpose and function, the vestment consists usually of very fine clothing which clergy wear in the course of their ministry. Some are reminiscent of the royal vesture of the kingdoms of history, and some derive their shape and function from Scripture. Their primary purpose is for the spiritual edification of the Church.
In one sense, vestments function as a uniform, identifying their wearer by his office and function, but they also serve the spiritual function of helping to bring the faithful into the atmosphere of understanding that in the Church, the Christian seeks to move ever more deeply into the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus, the wearing of vestments helps to render the clergy as icons of our Lord and his angels, serving at the one altar of God.
Per Nikita Borisove, Ecclesiastical Tailor: “A Priest is to perform all liturgical services, except liturgy, in cassock and riassa, on top of which special liturgical garments are needed. When serving a liturgy, and in other cases, when according to the Typikon, a Priest must be in full liturgical vestments, the riassa is taken off, and the alb (Sticharion) is worn over cassock, with other garments. The Priest’s Robe (Alb) has close sleeves. His Stole (Epitrahilion) consists of a long piece of stuff like the Deacon’s, but broader than the latter, which passes round his neck, is joined in front for its entire length, and falls low upon his robe. It typifies the consecrating grace of the priesthood. The Priest, like the Deacon can celebrate no Office without his Stole. The Girdle is sort of belt wherewith the priest girds himself above his robe and stole, for convenience in serving the altar. It is symbolical of the gift of strength, wherewith God aids him in his service, and exhorts him to blamelessness of life. His Cuffs typify the bonds wherewith the hands of our Lord were bound. The Epigonation is an oblong piece of brocade, which is suspended upon the hip of a Priest, and signifies the spiritual sword, which is the Word of God. The distinguishing vestment of the Priest is the Chasuble (Phelonion), a long, ample garment without sleeves, short in front and with an opening for the head, which is put on over the other vestments. Priests also receive, as tokens of distinguished service, the pointed and the upright Biretta ( Skuphia and/or Kamilavka).”
Here is a site with a short essay on the Symbolism of Vestments, http://www.roca.org/OA/32/32f.htm. The article states, “The spiritual significance of all the various liturgical vestments is underlined by the special prayers read during the process of vesting; When the priest or deacon puts on the sticharion, he says: “My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He hath clothed me in the garment of salvation and with the vesture of gladness hath He covered me. .(Is. 61:10). In putting on the epimanika or cuffs, first on the right hand and then on the left, he prays: “Thy right hand, O Lord, is glorified in strength; Thy right hand, O Lord, hath vanquished the enemy, and in the multitude of Thy glory hast Thou crushed the adversaries (Ex. 15:6). “Thy hands have made me and fashioned me…” (Ps. 118:73). The cuffs are symbolic of the bonds of Christ and serve as a reminder that a minister of the Church must rely not on his own strength, but on the help of God. Taking the epitrachelion, the priest makes over it the sign of the Cross and prays: “Blessed is God Who poureth out his grace upon His priests, like unto the oil of myrrh upon the head, which runneth down upon the beard, upon the beard of Aaron, which runneth down to-the fringe of his raiment” (PS. 132:2). In putting on the zone or belt, worn by both bishops and priests, he says: “Blessed is God, Who girded me with power, and hath made my path blameless…” (Ps. 47:32-33). The zone denotes the priest’s readiness to serve the Lord and is also a sign that he is bound to Christ. Those priests honored to wear the thigh-shield and also the epigonation (in Russian-palitsa), then put these on with the prayer: Gird Thy sword upon Thy thigh, O Mighty one.. “(Ps. 443) And indeed, these originated from the “knee-protectors’ suspended from the belt and worn on the thigh by soldiers under their swords. The thigh-shield represents the spiritual sword denoting the celebrant as a soldier of Christ. The epigonation also represents the word of God, that is, the spiritual sword (Eph. 6:17) used to fight against all the wiles of the enemy. Over every thing the priest puts on the phelonion or chasuble a long, circular and sleeveless garment, shorter in front to allow the hands freedom of movement. It is symbolic of the robe Christ wore during His Passion; the ribbons which decorate it are reminders of the flow of blood on Christ’s garments. The phelonion is also a token that the priest is “clothed with righteousness” (Ps. 131:9) and thus hedged off from all iniquities. For centuries it was also worn by bishops until it became customary for them to wear the saccos, a garment like a short tunic with half-sleeves, fashioned in all likelihood after the vestment of the Byzantine emperor; as such is is a sign of special distinction and honor. Symbolically it serves as a reminder that the bishop must rise to holiness of life. The term “saccos” means a “sackcloth garment” or “garment of humility””
Wow, the way in which vestments appeal to our very human need and senses to visualize the glory and kingship of our Lord through His Clergy reflects our theology of the Incarnation of our Creator. Had God the Word not become man, there would be no need to embrace and sanctify the things of man, and consequently no need for glorious vestments. Vestments, like icons, can and do serve as reminders of the beauty and magnificence of our call as Orthodox Christians: to worship God with our whole being-body, mind and soul.
So the next time you enter an Orthodox church, smell the incense, gaze upon the icons, and listen to the chant — participate. Then take a moment to consider the priest’s and deacon’s vestments, the altar covers, the chalice veils, and reflect upon the mystery of salvation which these “fabric icons” represent, a mystery best expressed in a verse from the vesting prayers: “My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He hath clothed me with the garment of salvation; as a bridegroom He hath set a crown upon me, and as a bride He hath adorned me with ornament, always now and ever, and unto ages of ages.