There’s vintage and then there’s vintage. There’s poking around the Goodwill Store in search of the perfect wide-collared, 1970’s brown polyester shirt for your Les Nesman from WKRP in Cincinnati Halloween costume. And then there’s Martha Washington’s silk taffeta gown she wore as First Lady in the 1780’s that is displayed at the Museum of Natural History.
Last Sunday I had my first brush with actual vintage clothing. Think Martha’s dress but 200 years older. It was a curious series of events that found me standing at the altar at St. John’s wearing sacred vestments dating to the mid-1500s. But there I was, celebrating the Eucharist in a fiddleback-style chasuble with cloth-of-gold stitching and embroidery reminiscent of the most gifted Renaissance-era European nuns.
The vestment had been in the family of a parishioner named Betsy Bishop for many years. The story goes that she had an uncle who traveled the world collecting art and artifacts. His collection became so valuable that he could never afford the import duties to have them shipped back home so he stayed in Europe — with his treasures — until his death. Sort of an art collector’s variation on Charlie and the MTA.
After her uncle died, the vestment was given as a wedding present to Betsy and her late husband Jack, a fitting gift as he was an Episcopal priest. Last year, Betsy donated the chasuble to St. John’s rather than a museum, saying she wanted to see it worn occasionally rather than having it hermetically sealed behind a glass case. After working with a renowned textile conservationist, and promising only to wear it very rarely, we dedicated the vestment in Jack’s memory.
Several people have asked me what was going through my head as I wore this ancient and sacred vestment, one that had been worn by so many faithful priests over the generations. Honestly, my first thought was “Do. Not. Drop. The. Chalice.” Now, after 17 years in the priesthood, I have yet to knock over a chalice full of wine. But all I could think was, “Well, there’s no time like the present.”
Once I relaxed and remembered it wasn’t about me — it’s never about the priest up at the altar — I was able to appreciate the once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was able to let the Church’s ancient liturgy, ritual action that has become part of my vocational identity, take over. In that sense, it was no different from any other Sunday and any other celebration of communion that has taken place over the past 2,000 years. There is bread, there is wine, there is a representative of the Church, there is a gathered community, and there is the divine presence.
At one point my mind wandered to who else might have worn this chasuble — and where. A mystery in the midst of the wonderful and sacred mystery that is Eucharist celebration.
Serving at the altar, whether the altar is a makeshift table in a hospital room or carved from Italian marble, always brings perspective. The perspective that others have come before and others will come after; the perspective that we are all connected to something greater, something that transcends time and space; the perspective that despite our limitations and failures, we are destined for glory.
So, this unique vestment made all the difference and no difference at all. I was glad to wear it and I was proud to be able to honor the Rev. Jack Bishop, a Civil Rights activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in both Selma and Boston. Yet it was also — as it was originally intended to be — all about our Lord’s sacrifice. I’m thankful to Betsy who recognized this all along. 16th century vestments do belong in museums but they also, ultimately, belong at the altar.