This morning’s Old Testament lesson is Exodus 28 (or excerpts thereof) in the ACNA Daily Lectionary. Shortly after chapter 20 is where lots of people who attempt to read the Bible cover-to-cover start to falter and lose momentum… all this stuff about the Tabernacle and its furnishings starts to wear on the reader. Chapter 28 details the vestments for Aaron the Priest and his sons. This might be interesting at first, but 43 verses of it can feel rather tedious. So let’s give a bit of insight into this chapter, which will perhaps stir up some interest and clarity!
A refrain that bookends this chapter (found in verses 2 and 40) is “for glory and for beauty.” This is a significant structural device in the writing style of this chapter, which is related to a variety of literary devices and structures found throughout the Old Testament. This simple refrain both introduces and concludes the entire “vestment law” contained in this chapter, and sheds light on the purpose of everything therein. All the attention to detail, all the colors and pieces that come together to form the whole. Even the symbolism which is explained in the text, such as the Breastplate of Justice having twelve precious stones that represent the twelve tribes of Israel that the priest bears on his heart, is subject to this “glory and beauty” principle. It’s not just symbolic, but it’s glorious and it’s beautiful.
Some traditions are (or are a least stereotyped to be) overly-focused on one side of this or the other. “Everything about the OT vestments was symbolic, and we can preach the Gospel from that!” says one group of people, who often overlook the “glory and beauty” principle and thus fail to make any connection to the use of vestments in the New Testament. Others may focus on the glory and beauty and forget about the explicit symbolism, and thus go on to make up their own symbols for their own modern sense of vestiture. But it is important that we take in the whole teaching of chapter 28: vestments exist to glorify God and to be beautiful to the human eye, and they carry with them explicit symbolic weight.
Therefore, as we look to Christian vestments, we must remember the same principle: is the detail and appearance of our vestments glorifying to God, or is it simply thrown together? Is it beautiful, or merely functional? Further, various Christian vestments carry certain symbolic meanings – are these symbols known to our congregations? Does the appearance of a particular vestment cooperate with its symbolic purpose or reinvent it?
Liturgical vestments aside, the “glory and beauty” principle could even be considered, to some degree, for how everyone dresses when going to church. The reason for wearing one’s “Sunday best” is not mere tradition, but actually has a root in seeking to be glorifying to God (testifying that He is Worthy) and beautiful to the human eye (that person values worship)!
I’m not going to get into the specifics of Anglican vestments here, but if you want to read some of the absolute basics, the Anglican Pastor blog has a beginner’s guide. It’s very much from a “current practice” perspective, without much historical scope, but it’ll get you started toward understanding what you’ll see today in a lot of churches.