+L’s Little Liturgical Lesson: Chasubles

Why do priests wear a ‘poncho’ at the Eucharist?

  • The particular garb or ‘vestment’ you will find being worn at the Eucharist here is called a chasuble – from the latin casula. Its origins go back to the ordinary clothing of a farmer who put on a casula to protect him from the elements. It seems to have become associated with Christians from the 3rd century. Fashions trends changed but it was still used by priests and by the 8th century almost universally when the Eucharist was celebrated, and took on symbolic meaning.
  • Although you don’t see it or hear it from where you are, there is a prayer traditionally said by priests as they put on the chasuble which gives a clue to one of its symbolic meanings:  ‘O Lord who said, “My yoke is easy and my burden light,” grant that I may bear it well and follow after you with thanksgiving.’
  • The chasuble is understood as symbolising the ‘yoke of Christ’ reminding the priest that it is Christ who is in reality the only priest and the true celebrant of every Eucharist. All Christian priesthood is derived from his is a share in his, and is to be shaped by his.
  • The chasuble came to be associated with the ‘seamless garment’ worn by Jesus in the way to the Crucifixion, making the connection between the priest, the mass, and the sacrifice of the Cross.
  • The chasuble is intended to give a certain anonymity to the particular priest who happens to be celebrating. Priests may have their ‘own’ vestments but they must be available for any priest to wear!
  • There are various styles and shapes. At Christ Church we mainly use what is known as ‘gothic’ style, but there are also some Latin ones, sometimes called ‘fiddlebacks’ because they are shaped a bit like a violin!
  • The chasuble is worn for no other activity than the Eucharist and is a reminder that there is no activity like the Eucharist. The clothes are not ordinary, just as their is nothing ordinary about the Eucharist.

Of course a priest doesn’t need to wear a chasuble. It’s not an essential element, and in Anglican history it has been the cause of some division. The Reformers gave them up even if the famous and influential protestant Calvin regarded the wearing of vestments as a matter ‘indifferent’, that is, not contrary to Scripture. As the Church of England was more and more influenced by the Reformation, the chasuble fell into disuse, until the 19th century and the ‘catholic revival’ or Oxford Movement which sought to recover the traditions of the early Church to the Church of England. Believe it or not, there were riots in the streets when a priest or two started wearing chasubles again, and one English priest was sent to prison for wearing one! I have a cartoon of him on my hall wall, and the chasuble he wore is now kept at the Shrine at Walsingham. Even today, in Sydney diocese you are not permitted to wear chasubles at the Eucharist, and this all reflects a certain controversy about the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist – an interesting subject for another time! 

BY +LINDSAY