Origins of Orthodox Vestments

A Holy Fulfillment: The Old Testament and the Adornment of the Church 


Any discussion of the theological importance of liturgical vesture within the Church is not complete without considering the place of the Old Testament Scriptures that specifically refer to garments used in Levitical worship. The primary scriptural references to the priestly garments of the old covenant are found in Exodus 25-36, in which God gives explicit instructions to the Prophet Moses for the outfitting ofthe Tabernacle as well as the garments to be worn by the priests. Indeed, these instructions read like technical notes, with emphasis given to how things are to be made: “The hem shall be interwoven with the rest, to prevent ripping” (Ex 28.27); what they are to be made from: “Gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and scarlet cloth; fine spun linen, and female goats’ hair, ram skins dyed red and skins dyed blue, and incorruptible wood; oil for the light, and incense for anointing oil and for composition ofincense; sardius stones, and stones for the carved work of the breastplate and the full- length robe” (Ex 25.3-7); and who is to make them: “Now Bezalel and Aholiab, and every gifted artisan in whom the Lord put wisdom and knowledge to know how to do all manner of work for the service of the holy place, did according to all the Lord commanded” (Ex 36.1)

   It is interesting to note that over one quarter of the book of Exodus is devoted to these detailed instructions for the outfitting of the Tabernacle and the garments of the priests of God….The decorations of the tabernacle, ephod, and breastplate are no mere afterthought; indeed, thirty-eight verses are devoted solely to the curtains and the garments of the priests and are quite specific in the colors and symbols that are to be used (gold, blue, purple, and scarlet fabric and pomegranates and bells, respectively). There is a careful and methodical approach to these adornments and in this it is demonstrated that the worship of God must be attended to with order and reverence. Through this meticulous precision we see God teaching mankind that things used for his glory are to be “built by God.” 
   On account of these detailed passages, some authors have argued that Christian vestments have their origin in Levitical dress, but even the most desultory comparison of the garments clearly illustrate that this could not be so (see Chapter Two for more on this topic). But just as the study of Orthodox Christian theology reveals much about the qualities of beauty within the Church, so it is through a reading of these chapters in Exodus that yet another quality of beauty within the Church is revealed: the fulfillment of types. This fulfillment is found in the progression from the Levitical understanding of worship, as outlined in the Old Testament, to the Christ centered understanding of liturgy as found in the New Testament and the unwritten tradition handed down by the early Church a rapidly coalescing tradition which led to the standardization of vestments and other adornments of the Church in the first few centuries following Christ’s earthly life. 

   St John of Damascus, writing in response to the iconoclasts who were arguing for a rejection of images based on Old Testament passages such as “You shall not make for yourselfa graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath” (Ex 20-4), states: 

It is not I who am speaking, but the Holy Spirit who declares plainly through the holy apostle Paul, “God spoke of old in many various ways to our fathers by the prophets.” Note that God spoke in many and various ways. A skillful doctor does not prescribe the same for all alike, but each according to his need…. In the same way the most excellent physician of souls prescribed correctly for those who were still children and susceptible to the sickness of idolatry, holding idols to be gods, and worshipping them as such, abandoning the worship of God, offering to the creature the glory due the Creator.

   He goes on to further explain this fulfillment of types by quot- ing from a sermon of St John Chrysostom on the Epistle to the Hebrews: How can what comes first be the image of what is to follow, as Melchizedek is of Christ?

    Melchizedek is used as an image in the Scriptures in the same way as a silhouette is an outline for a portrait. Because of this, the law is called a shadow, and grace and truth are what is foreshadowed. Consequently, the lawpersonified by Melchizedek is a silhouette of Him whose portrait, when it appears, is grace and truth inscribed in the body. So the Old Testament is a silhouette of things to come in a future age, while the New Testament is the portrait of those things.

Melchizedek blesses Abraham

    St John recognized that just as a tiny seed looks nothing like the blooming, flourishing plant, so it is necessary to be mind- ful that Orthodox Christian worship is not designed to look like Old Testament worship. The fulfillment of the beauty and lit- urgy of the Church, like the fulfillment of the salvation of man- kind, comes in no less a person than Christ himself through his Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. 

   The instructions in Exodus lay the groundwork, teaching that adornment of the holy things of God is integral to our worship of Him. But just as Christ took the place of rams sacrificed on stone altars, the adornment of our churches took a new and holy form through Christ’s Resurrection, molded by the time and place in history in which the Resurrection took place and by the subsequent es- tablishment of a Christian nation in the Byzantine Empire.

We know that the Fathers of the Church had a deep and thorough knowledge of the Scriptures (after all, St John Chrysostom spent two years memorizing the Scriptures in their entirety) and such an education could not have left them puzzling over how to outfit the churches of their day. Add to this the unwritten tradition which they had inherited and it would be completely illogical to suppose that men so formed by these Scriptures and providentially shaped by a world in which honor and majesty were the cornerstone of political and social hierarchy would have been able to construct liturgies to the Creator of All without glory and beauty. “Bring to the Lord the glory due His name; worship the Lord in His holy court” (Ps 28.2). They knew that “holiness is proper to Your house, 0 Lord” (Ps 92.5) and that “they shall speak of the magnificence of the glory of Your holiness, and they shall describe Your wonders” (Ps 144.5)

   While Exodus teaches that order and reverence are necessary components to the worship of God, the Church Fathers knew that any reading of the Old Testament Scriptures must be undertaken with an understanding that such Scriptures have their fulfillment in the coming of Christ and the traditions of the Church. Majestic and holy worship began with the Old Testament Levitical patterns but did not find its culmination until the Resurrection of Christ and the subsequent redemption of the world. With Christ’s coming everything is raised to a higher order, so the Church’s worship follows the same essential patterns,
yet looks different. As adopted sons of God, we are the inheritors of this holy fulfillment. As the Psalmist prophesies: They shall be intoxicated with the fatness of Your house, and You will give them drink from the abundant water of Your delight. For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light shall we see light. (Ps 35.9-10) In the beauty of the Church’s worship we find thefulfillment of the prophetic words and foreshadowing of all the Old Testament Scriptures.

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