ASK FATHER: Why is the back of Father’s vestment raised at the consecration?

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

I have been wondering why the servers lift the priest’s chasuble during the consecration. From the sources that I could find, it was an old practice to help the priest because the chasubles were heavy. Is there a deeper or symbolic meaning to the action?

The practical answer is the best answer.  Vestments of yore were fuller, draping lots of material over the arms, which could sometimes be heavy.  The weight of vestments were increased by ornamentation.  At the consecration, the edge of the the chasuble would be raised to assist the priest or bishop in raising his arms.

Raising the edge of a vestment, like a cope or chasuble, or – now that I am thinking about it – even lifting the hem of the celebrant’s alb have a real, practical purpose.

Don’t laugh.  Women would spend years making beautiful lace for albs out of their love for the Lord, because Holy Mass was the center of their lives.  Then some priest puts his foot through it.  I have seen that happen.  I was in choir once, watching as a know-it-all priest, whose half-baked partial knowledge of what to do inspired him in false know-it-all-ism to refuse to allow the deacon to lift the alb away from his foot.  Fr. Smarticus Pantsicus promptly put his foot through the beautiful lace.  Thus, he nearly ruined a someone else’s alb. high enough so that they could see the Host and chalice (as per the rubrics).  The same applied while the celebrant was incensing the altar and other things.  Copes were held up and away so that the priest can move.  The lower hem of albs were held up as priests ascended the stairs, lest he trip or, worse, put his foot through the precious handmade lace.

So… Fr. Smartici Pantsici out there… when it is time for the servers to help you, shut the hell up and let yourself be helped!

Gestures also take on symbolic meanings over time. Sometimes you might hear that this physical contact with the eminently priestly vestment associates the server more closely with the priest.  Sure.  That’s works for me too.

I’ll conclude with this.

Servers, go ahead and lift the edge of that chasuble…. BUT… just a little, okay?  Don’t lift it too high. Just a little, okay?  You don’t have to lift it half way up Father’s back.  Less is more, alright?  This especially applies with the more modern Roman vestments which don’t impede the arms and aren’t very heavy.

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29 Responses to ASK FATHER: Why is the back of Father’s vestment raised at the consecration?

  1. pjsandstrom says:

    If one wears ‘conical vestments’ (the true old-fashioned style) then the lifting of the chasuble makes perfect sense, doing so with the ‘cut back Roman style’ (fiddlebacks) is a gesture that has lost its practical meaning and really does look a bit odd.

  2. Levavi says:

    @pjsandstrom I would disagree. There is a beauty in the symbolism of assisting.

    One thing I don’t like is where servers clutch at the chasuble right through the consecration. The assistance should be during the elevation, no more, no less.

  3. WGS says:

    My understanding is that the lifting of the chasuble is not called for by a rubric but is simply a custom. One story suggests that it entered the routine as an emulation of the way the deacon is careful to keep the celebrant’s vestments out of the way when he is incensing the altar. It also makes sense that the server might lift the chasuble to free the shoulder of the celebrant from his heavy chasuble as he elevates the host or chalice. Pictures show one or the other methods.

  4. Netmilsmom says:

    ACK! I crochet lace. The story of the Priest stepping on the homemade lace made me tear up.

    I have been making a cover for our Food basket when it is blessed on Holy Saturday. It took me a month to crochet a simple shell border for a 12 inch by 12 inch cloth. I can’t imagine how long it took to crochet on vestments! And let me tell you, it couldn’t easily be repaired either. As with any weaving process, it’s simply one long string knotted in a beautiful way. Fixing a rip is daunting.

  5. voiceinthewilderness says:

    Someone told me that the lifting of the chasuble symbolized the pouring out of graces on the congregation at the consecration. Did they make that up? [Very creative.]

  6. Warren says:

    I cannot help but think of the gesture (of touching the hem of the priest’s chasuble) as a beautiful allusion to Matthew 9:20, i.e., the story of the woman who was cured when she touched the hem of Christ’s garment.

  7. Cool Catholic says:

    EoinOBolguidhir
    ROFL!!

  8. Darren says:

    And I always figured it was so that a longer chasuble would not touch the floor when the priest genuflected. I always did wonder what this was all about.

  9. Angie Mcs says:

    I dont remember ever seeing our altar servers raise the sides of the chasuble more than the proper amount as described here. Being relatively new to the Church, I asked a few of my fellow parishioners if there was some historical, religious reason for the gesture, but none of them knew. I always thought it was a combination of practicality and respect. Those vestments certainly look as if they can get heavy , and at certain moments, the celebrants would welcome a little help. It was interesting to read the response here from Father.

    I do love the thought of the connection between women who sit for hours making the beautiful lace worn during the service, with the final use during mass. Again, when I asked people if there was any symbolic meaning to how much lace a server or deacon wears and his place in the hierarchy, I was told no, that some garments are just made with more lace. Just as the stained glass windows and carvings enhance the beauty of the Church, so too do the garments. All of them reflect love for Our Lord as expressed by craftsmen and women. I hope that the lace is still made by hand and not in a factory, although I would understand the need for the latter in some places where lacemaking is no longer done. I believe our church here is trying to start a St. Marthas guild, where the women of the parish will be taught how to mend these precious garments, and learn some of the difficult stitches that were used to construct and embellish them. It would certainly be a challenge, somewhat inimidating, trying to repeat the original needlework. Our dear priests seem to wear them with humility, sensing that the beauty of the work must be pleasing to Him. So, from the original construction to holding the chasubles, to keep them safe from rips, candlewax and wine, it is all one circle of loving respect and devotion.

  10. CarpeNoctem says:

    Yeah, I have a strong preference for the large chasubles of the likes of the Holy Rood Guild, as I am a large guy. While they are not conicals, per se, the particulars (physics?) of the elevation do lead to the back of the vestment bunching up around and the front of the vestment, and then in the back where there is less material, the vestment becomes form-fitting around my back-end and the back of my legs… which is not a particularly pleasing aesthetic when viewed from behind. It is good when celebrating EF in these vestments to have someone lift it up, curling upwards against the similar movement in the front of the vestment. I don’t mind having a little lift when I wear Roman chasubles, but it does seem unnecessarily gratuitous. I do appreciate attention to even the small details of liturgy and ceremony, and I want to do things right when I celebrate, but I also realize that extreme fussiness over small points like the custom of lifting the chasuble are not particularly edifying. I may be going down a rabbit hole, but this discussion has jogged my memory of a little story I told when I was a seminarian to entertain my fellow inmates about the care we must have, lest little actions of convenience and practicality become overly spiritualized and given interpretations that don’t really belong…

    I imagine that the year is 3014, and from the last surviving YouTube videos of St. Balthasar and St. Rahner celebrating Mass (which is all that is remembered of them in the 31st century, considering that their works were never translated out of German and English into Latin which is in use as the interplanetary, universal language), that sacramental theologians have spilt exobytes of digital ink and combox blood over the meaning of the “Rite of the Sword”. You see, at the end of the twentieth century, priests were apparently inspired, after the “Ecce Agnus Dei…” to place the tips of their fingers at their side, slightly above the cincture, as a symbolic reference to the completion of the sacrifice when the Lord’s side was pierced by a lance and water and blood flowed from his side. The problem, though, is that the last video of St. Balthasar shows him lancing with the right hand, while St. Rahner lanced with the left. Oh, the arguments that ensued and the doctoral theses that offered one explanation after another for what was the “right” way to do this very important–indeed, critical—symbolic gesture to show the completion of the sacrifice. While most sacramental theologians agree that the side of the lancing does impact the validity of the celebration, nonetheless, Rahnerians feel cheated when a priest goes Balthasarian on them, and vice versa… Pope John Paul XXIII, the first pontiff from a Martian arch-diocese in over 600 years narrowly guided the Church through the threat of schism on this particular point… as a young priest he studied the ancient languages of English and German, and decoded the old, spotty films that had been translated into an ancient standard called “DVD”, and looked through the old liturgical texts, none of which pointed to a reason for the start of this ritual… until one day, the ancient city of Milwaukee was uncovered, along with its cathedral. (It was rumored to be destroyed in a ‘Call to Action’ by God following an orgy of liturgical dance early in the 21st century… the spandex burnt for years, until the whole place was covered over in ashes and re-built as “New Bruskewitz” some years later.) Along with the layover stoles and the novel floor plan which had not been seen in over a thousand years, archeologists uncovered these small plastic boxes in the vesting sacristy. On further study and a search of eBay, these boxes turned out to be an ancient radio-transmission devices which, along with a cable that went to a small ‘microphone’, was used to amplify the priest’s voice, back in the days when the ‘noisy’ Mass was the norm (before the age of telepathy). It turns out that the priest was not actually slaying himself in persona criste crucifixus, but was simply turning the microphone device off, as not to interfere with the musical act that took place during Holy Communion. The tradition of ‘right’ or ‘left’ was simply an accident of history, the origins of which were long forgotten by the ‘advanced’ age of the 31st century. Whether the priest wore the box on his right hip or left hip, and thus ‘slayed’ from the right or the left was not important. Stubborn Vaticanisti (sometimes called conciliarists, or simply abbreviated as V-2) traditionalists, who shout their rites in any number of dead languages (English and German, being two of them) while ‘facing the people’ cite the ongoing revelation of the “Spirit” to conform with the example of their hero and prototype, Karl Rahner, and will only ‘slay’ from the left… after all, the heart is anatomically biased towards the left side of the chest cavity, thus even natural law, they reason, is demonstrating that they are much more authentically Catholic than the mainstream ‘Communio’ types that slay from the right. Pope John Paul XXIII spent his life and suffered martyrdom to hold the Church together over this point, providing a generous indult to the gladii sinisteri which tolerated their rubrics and even sought to include adaptations and inculturations of their left-handed rubrics into the eighteenth typical edition of the Roman Missal. The tensions among these traditionalists remain strained to this day, even though great efforts have been made to include them in the life of the larger (majority) Church.

    The point I am laboriously making is that we priests and faithful need to be careful at initiating behaviors that might unduly add importance and meaning where none is really intended or which may actually be a distraction (my example of ‘slaying’ or perhaps the similarly-irking rite of “Purelling the Hands” for EOMHC, anyone?) I appreciate the small act of raising the chasuble, for instance, but I would be very hesitant to assign any real importance to it, other than to graciously assist the engineering of the vestments and the movement of the priest in his duties. Anything else may be something that Catholics a thousand years from now might still be stuck with, and having to deal with the reprecussions of our ritual carelessness…

  11. SebastianHvD says:

    I always like to think that the gesture is a nod to the ancient Jewish times, when the high priest entered the holy of holies on Yom Kippur with a scarlet rope attached to him, so he could be pulled out by the acolytes in case his sins were not properly atoned for and he was stricken down by the Lord. Nobody else was allowed to enter, so they had to have some way of getting the priest back out.

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  13. scarda says:

    I make lace and I mend lace, most of which is machine-made now, alas. It is not that difficult to mend, especially if you can make a buttonhole by hand, but it takes time which people are not interested in devoting to lace. I have tried to interest young women in making lace for vestments and few (=none) take it up. (Likewise embroidering with gold.) So I give lace to priests as gifts, figuring that several hundred hours of effort are best given to God, and it takes several hundred hours to make enough lace for an alb. It would be nice to see interest in young women toward these crafts; perhaps that will come again.

    I always watch how the priests walk who have magnificent lace, and most of them are quite careful, and will adjust the length of an alb in order to keep the lace a safe length above the shoes. I try not to stare at the lace during Mass, but noting and later mending a tear for Fr may not actually be a sin of inattention. I keep telling myself that.

  14. Imrahil says:

    I’ve heard this is because the priest speaks the Words of Consecration in persona Christi. And you really do like to touch Christ’s vestment (cf. the well-known Gospel story).

  15. Deo volente says:

    Father,

    I used to serve Mass on Sundays with a friend from high school. When Mass began, we processed to the center of the altar and genuflected. The problem was that Father rose about two seconds before I did. I watch stunned as I saw the entire right side of his alb tear up to his waist; I was kneeling on it! After the initial thought that perhaps the altar would open, and I’d fall through the marble, Father began the prayers at the Foot of the Altar. While he did, he reached into his sleeve and produced what might be called his “rescue kit”. He opened a small pouch and retrieved two large safety pins and a lady’s hat pin. Within minutes the tear was pinned together and Mass continued as if nothing had happened. After Mass, he blessed us in the Sacristy as usual and then I apologized. Father smiled and said something like “Those things happen!” I pray for his soul to this day.
    D.v.

  16. Angie Mcs says:

    scarda, I think its lovely that you still make lace by hand. What a kindness to then give your beautiful work to a young priest, who will one day add it to a garment and who will remember your special gesture of affection and respect. We should all do something for our priests, in our own way, as they do so much for us. As far as young women returning to handwork, there has been a resurgence in knitting and crocheting over the past few years. Those who find they really love to do handwork may be led to working on vestments. I will be curious how women will respond to the challenge at my church ( including myself!)

  17. Vecchio di Londra says:

    This is a wonderful custom which I love to see. It reminds me of my childhood, when I used to imagine that Father was metaphorically flying up to Heaven at the moment of Elevation, and the altar boy was there to help give him a lift-off, and granted the favour of being ‘on board’ by being allowed to touch the hem of the celebrant’s ‘cloak’.
    In the Middle Ages, and not just because of Luke 8:44, kneeling and touching the lower hem of the garment of a lord or master was a gesture of supplication and service.

  18. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    WGS,

    The incense issue seems to explain the practice in the Dominican Rite, at least in part. In our rite, he deacon lifts the chasuble out of the way so as to incense continually during the elevations. He does not lift for the genuflections. I might add that when the censer-bearer incenses the priest (three times with three simple up and down lifts of the thurible), he also lifts the front of the chasuble out of the way so as to incense below it.

    But the weight issue might be a secondary reason. The deacon, in our rite, lifts the front of the chasuble when the priest opens his hands for Dominus vobiscum and for the (quiet) Orate fratres (which has no response in our rite).

  19. HeatherPA says:

    Scarda, I so wish I lived nearby you, as I would gladly be an avid pupil of laceweaving and mending. I have tried to find a tutor to teach me these things and sewing as well, and have come up empty handed where I live- these skills are becoming lost, I have no family that could teach me, and my efforts of self teaching are best left unmentioned.

  20. OrthodoxChick says:

    Scarda,

    I second HeatherPA. I would love to learn such handiwork too. If only you lived on the east coast so we could get together!

  21. Peter in Canberra says:

    Thank you Father for the admonition to not raise the flag [to the top of the flagpole] but to simply lift the chasuble in a decorous way.
    I hope your words are heard and followed.

  22. JamesM says:

    Father, when it comes to lifting the chasuble the guide I was given was “not to show the lining”

  23. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    Surely most theologians agree that the side of the lancing does not affect validity?

  24. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    The lifting of the vestments by the servers at the Elevation has always reminded be of Exodus 17 when Moses’ intervention led to Israel’s defeat of the Amalekites (Exodus 11:8-13):

    “And Amalec came, and fought against Israel in Raphidim. And Moses said to Josue: Choose out men: and go out and fight against Amalec: to morrow I will stand on the top of the hill having the rod of God in my hand. Josue did as Moses had spoken, and he fought against Amalec; but Moses, and Aaron, and Hur went up upon the top of the hill. And when Moses lifted up his hands, Israel overcame: but if he let them down a little, Amalec overcame. And Moses’ hands were heavy: so they took a stone, and put under him, and he sat on it: and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands on both sides. And it came to pass that his hands were not weary until sunset. And Josue put Amalec and his people to flight, by the edge of the sword. “

  25. Stephen Matthew says:

    I can attest that catching the hem of an alb with your toe while ascending steps can be a serious issue, particularly if these steps are steep, and very much so if you are bearing a rather large and nearly too heavy to carry Paschal candle. Lest disaster follow immediately, I determined that to be a fine spot to stop, turn around, elevate the candle, and intone the first “Light of Christ”, thereafter taking great care not to catch the alb under my toe. I doubt that even the most studious of servers would ever have thought to lift the hem for a non-cleric carrying a heavy liturgical object up steps.

    What I mean by all this is, that being these are practical measures not covered by any rubric, it would be most sensible in making use of such actions when it is of real benefit. In both forms of the mass priests regularly go up steps, and regularly genuflect, and occasionally kneel, and it would be quite wise for the servers to attend to the priests, and if possible the deacons, and at times even lesser persons carrying out some liturgical ministry. Better many short baroque chasubles should go unraised if in the exchange a few clerics can be prevented from planting themselves face first into a concrete step during a procession or some such.

    The lack of servers (or lower clergy) attending to these things has led to a trend in many parts of wearing albs that are far too short (or perhaps gathering up a large amount of the length with the cincture), with not just the shoes, nor even the cuffs, but a good bit of pant leg sticking out below (or, more horrifying, no sign of pants but quite some length of socks, suggesting the priest is either in shorts or…). Then in imitation of this some fashion conscious female servers take it a little farther and you start having servers showing a good bit of leg and making the alb into some sort of just past the knee skirt or dress. This will not do. It all starts with refusing these older courtesies even when it serves an immediate practical purpose, and ends up compromising the dignity of more than a few involved, thus undermining the dignity of the liturgy.

  26. Andkaras says:

    I would like to begin using the term ” smarticus pantsicus ” in regular conversation,being mildly entertained by it ,. I am however concerned that one of those smartici pantici may attempt to confront me with the uncomfortable assertion that I am using “made up” Latin. Should I research the term more thoroughly, or shall I through caution to the wind ,have my fun, and if confronted,simply be grateful that I have encountered a person who actually knows Latin?

  27. jasoncpetty says:

    no sign of pants but quite some length of socks, suggesting the priest is either in shorts or…

    Funny story: a priest training several of us to serve Low Mass, instructing on the issue of lifting the chasuble during the elevations, was not at all prepared for an over-zealous server lifting the back of Father’s cassock while Father demonstrated a mock-elevation. We were all treated to a hilarious view of Father’s black socks and hairy legs. Chuckles all around, Father included.

  28. John F. says:

    RE: Fr. Smarticus Panticus – When these smart pants types try to prove what the can do or what they know they need to realize all succeed in doing is showing off how much they can’t do or don’t know

  29. I have wondered if lifting the chasuble was a sign of reverence for the kingship of Christ just like one would lift the train of a king in procession.