“Then Moses inspected all their work. When he found it had been done just as the Lord had commanded him, he blessed them.”
The work to which this passage refers was the work of creating the tabernacle, utensils and vestments for the worship of God, according to God’s own specifications. The pure gold and gold laid items, along with the blue, purple and scarlet fabrics must have made the project look like a piece of heaven in the midst of the wilderness. We can only imagine its beauty and grandeur. Perhaps the King Tut exhibit gives us a taste of what it must have been.
One Sunday after worship a young man came up to me and said, “I have a question for you. Where in the Bible does it tell you that you can wear those silly robes?” He was referring to the alb and chasuble that I was wearing to celebrate the Mass. Trying not to react to his cheeky attitude, my mind raced back to these commandments of God for the vesture of the priesthood. But I knew that such a reference would be patently dismissed with, “Well that’s just the Old Testament.” So I decided to go another way. I responded, “Let me answer your question with a question.” (Smart people seem to always take this approach and so I thought I would give it a go). “Where in the Bible does it say that I cannot wear these vestments, because if you can show me that, then I will take them off and never wear them again.”
This was not my first rodeo. In this part of the Bible Belt I have had to learn to address the questions of those who take a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. I do so not with a goal to one-up them, but to let them see that our tradition honors the authority of Scripture as well. We may not interpret it the same but we love it the same and this often that brings some understanding even if not agreement.
I went on to explain to the young man that our tradition believes that we are free to do all things except what the Scripture forbids. We accept what St. Paul said, “all things are lawful but not all things are profitable” (1 Cor 10:23) and so we look to the Church over the centuries to help us understand what is profitable. For many centuries the Church has patterned her worship as not the rejection, but the fulfillment, of the Old Testament worship that God ordained. Consider the elements of the tabernacle. Before entering the sacred space you washed in the laver. This is baptism and it is why the font is often in the entrance of the church. Inside you find a golden lampstand which represents God’s Word, which is a “lamp unto my feet” (Ps 119:105). That is represented by the lectern where God’s Word is read and the pulpit where God’s Word is proclaimed. The altar of incense represents the prayers of the people (Ps 141:2). The table of showbread represents fellowship/communion which culminates in the Ark of the Covenant which is God’s presence that comes to us in Holy Communion.
So, with all of this Old Testament imagery being fulfilled in the Church, what should I be wearing? Let me ask this another way. What would the boy who challenged me have thought if a police officer or a doctor came to his house dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and kakis? (Okay I know the idea of a doctor making a house call is a stretch but work with me here). He probably would either have doubted that they were the real thing or wished that he had been sent someone who was a better representation… someone in uniform. Thus the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican and some Protestant traditions have traditionally placed their clergy in garb that befits their office, and even more, that honors the Lord that we have come to worship.
This is not to say that what was just described is the only way to worship our Lord. The varieties of ways that the Body of Christ honors and proclaims Him are like the many facets on a beautiful diamond. It is important, however, not to have a wholesale dismissal of the Old Testament or of Holy Tradition and think that it is up to us to reinvent the wheel. It is a waste of time and energy that we can put to better use.