The Purpose of Liturgical Vestments

Vestments:  The Customary Robes of the Pastor and Liturgical Assistants

What is the purpose of liturgical vestments?   Why do Lutherans keep them?  The purpose of vestments is at least threefold:

1.  To cover the person in a uniform manner so that we do not focus on his personality or wardrobe but upon the activity of the means of grace (preaching, Baptism, reading Scripture, administering the Lord’s Supper). 

2.  To indicate the office which the pastor holds by call and ordination, or by appointment as in the case of deacons or acolytes.

3.  To adorn the Lord’s liturgy with appropriate colors and symbols that reflect the hidden heavenly realities of the Divine Service and that show our continuity with the ancient church.  In this it helps separate the sacred from the secular or profane.


ALB — The Alb is a full, white, ankle length garment. It has become popular is recent years because of its cheerful white color and innovative styling. It is the most ancient of Christian vestment. Its origins are traced to the Roman tunic, a common piece of clothing until the 5th century, after which it became a garment unique to the clergy. It reminds Christians of the multitude dressed in robes, “washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). The image reminds each believer that he now stands clothed in Christ’s righteousness and that he someday will stand with the white-robed multitude washed in the blood of the Lamb. This hope is expressed in the alb’s vesting prayer: “Clothe me, O Lord, and cleanse my heart, that cleansed in the blood of the Lamb I may always enjoy eternal happiness.”   An alb without stole and chasuble might be worn by deacons or acolytes who assist the pastor.

CASSOCK — The Cassock is a full-length black garment that may be worn with a clergy collar in the case of pastors. Like a fitted shirt above the waist and a full ankle-length skirt below the waist, the cassock comes in two styles. The Roman cassock buttons down the middle and the Anglican down the right side. The cassock is the traditional street garb of the clergy, and as such is not a liturgical garment.   A cassock and surplice may be worn also by acolytes and deacons.

CHASUBLE — The Chasuble developed from the poncho-style warm cloak the Paul refers to in Second Timothy 4:13. In the church it became a highly ornamented covering over street clothes and other vestments. For that reason it became know as “the vestment.” The Chasuble is worn exclusively during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper by the clergy. But recently, other liturgical churches have reclaimed this ancient, colorful and graceful vestment. Yoked around the neck and burdening the shoulders, the Chasuble suggests Jesus’ words, “my yoke is easy and my burden light.” What a compelling invitation to Jesus’ supper when we recall that just before, he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Mt. 11:28) The prayer used as the Chasuble is put on reflects this, “Lord, you said, ‘My yoke is sweet and my burden is light,’ enable me always to rely on your grace and assistance.”   The stole and chasuble are both made in the colors of the Church Year.   See Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV in the Book of Concord, our Lutheran Confessions.  The chasuble is regaining its use among Lutherans in America.

STOLEThe Stole is a cloth band of the color of the liturgical season, worn around the neck and hanging down at the front.  Its symbolic indication that the wearer is functioning in his called office.  The stole’s vesting prayer reflects this symbolism. “Give me again, O Lord, the stole of immortality which I lost in the transgression of my first parents, and though I am unworthy to come to Thy sacred mystery, grant that I may rejoice in the same everlastingly.”   It is not a vestment for confirmands, properly speaking.   Historically there is also a sash-like diagonal stole for deacons.

SURPLICE OR COTTA — The Surplice is a full long, flowing white garb with full sleeves worn over a cassock or black gown. A Nordic or Scandinavian innovation, it allowed pastors serving in cold churches to wear extra-heavy cassocks, which wouldn’t fit under an alb. The surplice serves as an alb, and by the time of the Reformation it replaced the alb for non-communion services. Most consider its symbolism to be the same as that of an alb; however, many have taken note of an alternate symbolism. A white garment worn over a black gown, it can be though of as symbolic of Christ’s righteousness covering our sin, or Christ’s glory driving out darkness.   A cotta is simply a shorter surplice.

Traditionally for Holy Communion the pastor serving as celebrant of Holy Communion would be vested in alb, stole, and chasuble, while an assisting pastor would wear simply alb and stole.  Any lay assistants would simply wear an alb or a cassock and surplice.   For non-communion services a pastor would wear cassock, surplice, and perhaps a stole.

Lutheran quotes on Vestments (including chasubles) in the Lutheran Divine Service

“It is appropriate that the presiding minister wear a white vestment, an alb or surplice, and a stole in the color of

the day or season. He may wear a chasuble over the alb and stole at the Holy Communion.”

            Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church –Missouri Synod.

            Lutheran Worship: Altar Book (Saint Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1982); p.26


In the 16th century Reformation the Lutherans retained the traditional clerical  vestments [see Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV], but the other reformers rejected these and adopted the black gown or robe instead. About two hundred years after the Reformation, Reformed [Calvinist] rulers in Germany more or less forced the black gown also on Lutheran pastors. The chasuble is the most distinctive ancient Eucharistic vestment of the Christian church. The word chasuble comes from the Latin casula, meaning a little hut, because it covered the whole man. The chasuble resembled a present day cape, a garment without sleeves put over the body and completely covering it. It was circular in shape with a hole in the middle for the head, and fell to the feet all around. It had to be lifted up in order to use the arms. St. Paul mentions this garment in 2 Tim. 4:13. When it passed out of common secular use, it was retained as a clerical vestment. At first it was worn full length, but in he course of time, it was shortened until it reached only to the knees. The material was wool or linen, but from about the year 1000, the chasuble began to be made of silk, which is still the general material today. The shape of the chasuble was changed gradually by cutting the sides shorter to free the arms. Only enough was cut away at first to leave the arms partly free. This shape is the so-called Gothic chasuble. Later it was cut so far back on the sides that the arms were entirely exposed, leaving only a garment hanging over the shoulders in front and back. This form is known as the Roman style. At first the chasuble was not ornamented, but during the Middle Ages it was decorated elaborately with orphreys and embroidery. The Roman style had a large Latin cross on the back with a single orphrey down the center of the front. The Gothic style was decorated with a Y-shaped orphrey cross in the back and a single orphrey, called the pillar, down the front. At the time of the Reformation, Luther retained the chasuble and the ancient vestments, while Zwingli and other [radical] reformers discarded them as “papistic,” together with altars, candles, crucifixes, and the like. Since the earliest days, however, the chasuble has been “the vestment” for the celebration of the Holy Communion Service, was retained by the Lutheran Church at the time of the Reformation, and is still used by a large section of the Lutheran Church. [pp.47, 52]

            Ceremony and Celebration: An Evangelical Guide for Christian Practice in Corporate Worship

            by Paul H.D. Lang (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1965)

Apology [Defense] of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV.1 – The Book of Concord

At the outset we [Lutherans] must again make the preliminary statement that we 1]

do not abolish the Mass, but religiously maintain and defend it. For among us masses are celebrated every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals, in which the Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. And the usual public ceremonies are observed, the series of lessons, of prayers, vestments, and other like things.

“While the alb, stole, and chasuble are the primary eucharistic vestments of the Church of the Augsburg Confession, the

cassock and surplice are the standard vestments for non-eucharistic services.”

            John T. Pless –Lutheran Worship: History and Practice. Fred Precht, Editor. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House,           1993); p.223

“Along with the alb and stole the minister may also wear a chasuble (from the Latin casual, which means “little house”). The

chasuble is a poncho-like garment that fits over the alb and stole. Its shape is either semicircular, elliptical, or rectangular.

Like the stole, the chasuble will also reflect the color of the liturgical season. This means that its primary color will be

that of the liturgical season or that the material will be of a neutral color with an orphrey or some other ornamentation coordinating with the color of the liturgical season. Since the chasuble is a eucharistic vestment, it is properly worn only at services in which the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. Accordingly, it may be worn for the entire Divine Service, or it may be put on immediately efore the commencement of the eucharistic liturgy (either during the Offering or the Offertory).

            Lee A. Maxwell.  The Altar Guild Manual: Lutheran Service Book Edition (Authorized by the Commission on

            Worship of The Lutheran Church –Missouri Synod.)  (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1996, 2008); p.70