2002-11-10 Our Saviour spoke severely about the scribes and Pharisees
November 10, 2002
Our Saviour spoke severely about the scribes and Pharisees who drew attention to themselves by their outward display, enjoying the privileges of office while exploiting others for their own prideful gain (Matthew 23:1-12). Jesus obliged the ceremonies of the Temple and wore rabbinical garments himself. People tried to touch his tassels in hope of healing. Like any good thing, outward vesture can be abused. Some Pharisees used symbols of their office for the opposite of their purpose. Vestments are meant to wrap the wearer in something bigger than the self. Judges wear robes as a sign that they administer justice to which they are subject themselves. It is the same with police officers, soldiers, mail carriers, waiters, and, yes, popes.
The Pharisees imposed burdens on others that they would not shoulder themselves. Vestments should be heavy as a sign of the responsibility assumed by the wearer. He is not doing “his own thing” but “God’s thing.” The priest is the Alter-Christus, the representative of Christ, and not his own man. The youngest priest becomes two thousand years old when the stole is placed on his shoulders.
As the anointed servants of God are stewards of His sacred mysteries, the Levitical regulations of the Jews for priestly garb were elaborate and specific. Ironically, the more lax we become about the beauty of sacred vesture, the more the individual personality tends to take over. In many places the Liturgy has become a form of man-centered entertainment with worldly music and bourgeois forms of self-congratulation. The sacred mystery of worship should enhance who we are by taking us out of ourselves, obliterating self-consciousness in transcendent worship.
I am edified by the reverence shown at all hours in our parish church. I am also chagrined at the ill behavior shown sometimes by visitors attending weddings here: not praying, and talking raucously. A small sign in the narthex ordering decorum is not going to undo the habits of people who have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, reverence in the House of God. The finest ornaments and vesture we can obtain do not impress God, but they should impress us with the recognition that God is God. The best that a poor man has to offer is more beautiful to God than anything. The best that those who are not poor have to offer is also worthy. What is not worthy is the common and careless. From time to time generous friends make gifts of beautiful vestments and sacred objects. While we have debts (and have to fix a roof so that it does not leak on all this beauty), our greatest debt is to God who gives us eternal life. Outward rituals should express that, and always with the intention that our hearts and minds may be as worthy as the music and incense and outward signs of devotion.
Fr. George W. Rutler