“The Baptismal Garment”
A sermon for
The Second Sunday of Easter
preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.
In the Church of Rome—the Mother Church of the Church of England—this Sunday was called by a rather unexpected Latin title: “Hebdomida in Albis.” This could be loosely translated as “The Sunday when they wear albs to chuch.”
Since this the kind of language which has the potential to cause some people to say, “Could you please say that to me again, in English?”, it might be helpful to start with a few explanations.
Who are the “they” who wore their albs to Church on the Second Sunday of Easter? “They” are the newly baptized in the early church. They had been completely initiated into the Christian Community at the Great Vigil of Easter seven or eight (depending on how you count the days) days ago.
What is an alb? When in doubt about a word you have not heard before, (or one for which you want a simple explanation) one of the quickest ways to get an answer is to ask our friend, “Wiki,” short for Wikipedia. This is what Wiki has to say:
“The alb (from the Latin Albus, meaning white), one of the liturgical vestments of the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist churches, is an ample white garment coming down to the ankles and is usually girdled with a cincture (a type of belt, sometimes of rope similar to the type used with monk-garments). It is simply the long, white linen tunic used by the Romans.”
Wiki gives us two interesting hints. The first is that is the basic clothing of the Romans—the tunic. Thus the garment itself is just what the average Roman would have worn as their every-day clothing. If they were poor, it might well have been made from some rough cloth. If they were better off, it might have been woven from some more luxurious material—and remember that in Egypt they were growing cotton, and in other places to the north they were producing wool and yarn woven from various animal hairs (sheep, goats, etc). But, in either case it was a simple, conventional piece of clothing.
Today, most of us would be someone surprised if we saw someone walking around the circle here in Easton wearing an alb—we would probably wonder what they were up to!. After all, it is no longer an ordinary every day piece of clothing. We expect to see people wearing pants and a shirt—or perhaps a dress. If it is a fancy occasion, they might wear a suit. It is only in parts of Africa or Asia—or perhaps in the Middle East—in other words, in more traditional parts of the world—that we still find people wearing something which resembles the Roman alb. It is worth noting, in passing, that often those places are very hot. There, the loose-fitting tunic is more comfortable—and cooler—than tighter garments like pants and shirt.
In case you did not notice, though, I am wearing an alb today (over my pants and shirt). And, if you look around, you will notice that I am not the only one wearing an alb—but more about that in just a minute.
The second clue which Wiki gives us is that the alb is white. In fact, we are told that the garment takes its name from the Latin word albus—which means white. In the modern world, white is a color which we take for granted. There is nothing special about a white shirt or white sheets or a white scarf. In the ancient world, though, white garments were rare! It took a lot of work to dye something white. One thinks, for instance, of the “fuller.” There was an actual profession which made its money from producing white material. Remember that interesting aside found in the story of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, “And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.” One thinks for instance of Roman Senators who wore a white Toga (perhaps bordered in purple—another very costly hard to produce color).
Why white? Church historians tell us that the color white was used for these albs which were worn on “Alb Sunday” for a very obvious reason. What these newly baptized Christians are wearing is their “Baptismal garment.” Remember that they would have been naked when they were baptized (men in one room and women in another so as to avoid scandal). They were instructed that when they rose from the fertile womb of the waters of baptism, it symbolized their re-birth, their new birth to life in Christ—it symbolized that they had been “born again” by water and the Spirit.
Then they would have been anointed with several oils—including the aromatic Sacred Chrism to show that they had been “Christened,” Remember that the word Christos in Greek is an invented word, really a title, it is a literal translation of the Hebrew word messiah—which means the “anointed one.” There was a beautiful prayer that went something like “I anoint you with this holy oil as once Christ was anointed priest, prophet and king.”
They were then covered with the white alb. Perhaps it was a seamless garment (again very expensive), reminding them of the garment which Our Lord would have worn through his trial, passion and to his crucifixion. It seems that this linen garment was made from flax fibers. If so, that is interesting because it was an “all natural product.” Wool came from animals which were also sacrificed and eaten.
They were reminded: “You have clothed yourself in Christ.” A prayer was recited after they were clothed in the baptismal garment: “See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity . . . bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”
And finally, to remind them of the power of the Light of Christ—which they had witnessed first hand in the Church on that dark night when the new fire was lit and the paschal candle was marched through the congregation with the three-fold proclamation, “The light of Christ.” They were told that now they “had been enlightened by Christ and were to always walk as children of the light.”
We do not normally give much thought to dirty clothes. We have Tide “pods” and perhaps Oxyclean. There are all kinds of stain removers (things like Shout). Most have access to hot water, powerful washing machines or to a laundry service. We take clean clothes for granted! In the ancient world, this was not the case. Bleach was hard to come by, and all too often women—yes it was normally women—had to wash clothes near the town fountain or by the riverside. It took a lot of work to keep clothes clean! I will admit that there have been times when I have been unable to get a difficult stain out of a shirt and just decided to throw the shirt away. This is a true first-world concept! And a late twentieth century one at that.
The ancient baptismal alb was a once-in-a life garment—the only modern analogy that comes to mind is a wedding dress. It is worn only once. And, often it is very expensive. Yet it is full of symbolism and memory—is treasured for a lifetime, and might even be passed down to future generations of a family.
If nothing else, asking the newly baptized to wear the garment for a whole week—and then to wear it back to church next Sunday taught important life lessons. It is so easy to get white garments dirty! It is hard to get stains out. If a garment is torn, it will have to be mended—and then the scar of the repair will always be visible. And garments like that, if worn often, wear out. Very interesting metaphors to understand the reality of the new—and challenging baptismal life.
It is no wonder, then, that the baptismal garment was the first tool used in the fifty days of instruction in which the newly baptized were instructed and prepared to assume their proper role in the community of faith following the feast of Pentecost!
I do not honestly know how ancient the tradition is of having the “Gospel of the Questioning Apostle,” (Note that I used a circuitous turn of phrase to avoid saying “doubting Thomas.”) Poor Thomas—if we are all honest, we are all Thomas and Thomas is us! But, I suspect that it is a very old custom. It is one that I really like—and think is especially relevant when contemplating the state of my own figurative baptismal garment. Mine is worn, torn, often mended, dirty and shabby.
The good news of Easter is the same hope promised in the Transfiguration. God’s love is all encompassing, healing, and powerful. It is able to restore my sad baptismal alb and make it as bright and clean as it was when first I wore it.
A final thought. I have often wished that we asked all the baptized to wear an alb to Church this Sunday! It would remind us that our alb is NOT only a liturgical vestment—rather it is a reminder that through our baptism we are all called to ministry in the Church.