(…continued) Most of the symbolic actions of the Old Testament priests are no longer practiced, but Christian worship is still filled with symbols. The most universally recognized symbol in the world is the cross, so most Christian churches have a cross up front and in the center, symbolizing it’s central importance to our faith. The colors of the paraments on the altar symbolize the season of the church year that we are in. Candles the altar can symbolize Christ as the light of the world, or, they can be a symbol of God’s Word which is a light on to our path. Many churches have one candle burning all the time, throughout the week, symbolic of the fact that Christ is always with us.
What pastors wear when they lead worship is also symbolic. This is true even if they wear flip-flops, faded blue jeans, and a T-shirt– symbolizing they are just like the rest of the folks. Other pastors wear other garments, symbolizing other things.
I have usually worn the traditional alb and stole. I once had a Southern Baptist lady visit the congregation. She had just moved to Minnesota from the Arkansas, and was used to a more informal worship service. She had never been to a Lutheran service and had some questions for me. The first thing she said was, “Where I come from, the pastor just wears regular clothes like the rest of us when he’s is doing the service. How come you Lutheran preachers get all dressed up in a white robe with that colored scarf around you neck, like you are something special. You aren’t one bit better than the rest of us, you know.”
I quickly agreed with her, saying she was right about pastors not being any better than anyone else. But I told her she was wrong in thinking that is why we put on what we do for worship. “In fact,” I said, “what I wear for worship is symbolic of something very different than what you think.” I said the alb and stole is not meant to symbolize that I am better than her, but instead is meant to take the focus of me entirely. I am not up front to show off myself, but to point to Christ. And what better way is there to do that than by covering up all I can of who I am? I can’t cover up my face because I need to talk, and I can’t cover my hands because I need to turn the pages, but I can cover up the rest of me.
“Clothes make the man,” goes an old saying, but the man (or woman) isn’t what is on display in worship. It is God who should be on display, and covering up the clothes of the pastor removes a distraction. People notice clothes, and so instead of praying or hearing God’s word they might be saying to themselves, “Look at that, his tie is crooked again!,” or, “Doesn’t he dress a little too casual for church?,” or, “What’s that, another new suit, we must be paying him too much?,” or, “Isn’t that neckline on her sweater a little too low?” And the pastor himself might become too conscious of what he is wearing, wondering if the zipper on his pants is all the way up or if his shirt is still tucked in. The robe, or alb as it is called, covers the clothes to remove that distraction. My worship vestments are certainly not an attempt to say that I am better than anyone else, but that I am unimportant. The pastor leading worship is representing someone else. And so, the robe is white, symbolizing the purity of Christ– Christ who covers me and my imperfections. I am representing Christ, and to bring his Word to the congregation and not my own.
And what I wear around my neck is not a scarf as the lady thought. It is a ‘stole.’ The stole is symbolic of a yoke, an item used in the old days to put on the shoulders of people to help carry pails of water or feed, or to be put on the shoulders of animals to yoke them to each other and to the load being pulled. Jesus once said, “Take my yoke upon you,” and the stole is symbolic of that yoke, symbolizing that I have been yoked to Christ and his work.
So I told our Baptist visitor that everything I wear as I lead worship is intended to point not to myself, but to Christ. She said that made sense to her. At first, she had not understood the symbol. Therefore, the symbol itself became a distraction for her, instead of doing what it was intended to do, which was to remove the distraction. She had to learn the meaning of the symbol.
One thing we have to remember as we read the Bible is that it was written a long time ago, in a culture far different from our own; so there will be much that we will not understand or that may seem odd to us. As I pointed out in the story of our Baptist visitor, symbols can be easily misunderstood, even by someone living in the same century and just a few hundred miles away. So we have to have a certain humility about reading these stories. There is much we can learn from them, but we have to begin by realizing there is much we do not know. Symbols are helpful, but their meaning has to be learned.
But what the Bible does clearly tell us, even when it seems most odd, is that God is not a far away distant God who is uninvolved with this world. God has become involved, he has even been here in person– but he comes into specific times and places, speaking into specific cultures and in languages and thought forms that may be very different from our own. We must not sit in judgment of what we see in the Bible, but rather, seek to understand the truths behind the images and symbols. Then, we can let God’s Word judge us, and then we will know how to receive its word of comfort and hope.
2 Corinthians 4:5-7 — For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
A PASTOR’S PRAYER by Martin Luther (1483-1546):
Lord God, Thou hast placed me in Thy church as a pastor. Thou seest how unfit I am to administer this great and difficult office. Had I hitherto been without help from Thee, I would have ruined everything long ago. Therefore I call on Thee. I gladly offer my mouth and heart to Thy service. I would teach the people and I myself would continue to learn. To this end I shall mediate diligently on Thy Word. Use me, dear Lord, as Thy instrument. Only do not forsake me; for if I were to continue alone, I would quickly ruin everything. Amen.