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The Clergy and Their Sacred Vestments


Following the example of the Old Testament Church, which had its high priest, priests, and Levites, the holy Apostles instituted bishops, priests, and deacons as the priesthood of the New Testament Christian Church. They are all called members of the clergy because, by means of the Mystery of the priesthood, they receive the Grace of the Holy Spirit for sacred service in the Church of Christ. This enables them to celebrate the divine services, to teach the laity the Christian faith and holy life, and to direct ecclesiastical affairs.

The bishops comprise the highest rank in the Church, and therefore receive the highest degree of Grace. Bishops are also called hierarchs, or leaders of the priests. They may celebrate all the Mysteries and all ecclesiastical services. Bishops may serve the usual Liturgy, but they alone may consecrate others into the priesthood, or consecrate Holy Chrism and an Antimins. A bishop is sometimes given another bishop, called a vicar bishop, to assist him in his duties.

In their degree of priesthood, bishops are all equal, though the senior and most deserving of them are called archbishops. The bishops whose sees are centered in major cities are termed metropolitans, after the Greek word for a large city, "metropolis." The bishops of the ancient major cities of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, and those of the capitals of certain Orthodox countries, such as Belgrade and Moscow, are called patriarchs. (From 1721 to 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church was governed by the Most Holy Synod. In 1917, an All-Russian Council was summoned which restored the rule of the Church to the "Most Holy Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.").

Priests comprise the second rank of the sacred ministry. With an episcopal blessing, priests may serve all the Mysteries and ecclesiastical services, save the Mystery of Ordination and the sanctification of Holy Chrism or an Antimins. The congregation of Christians subject to the supervision of the priest is termed his parish. The more worthy and distinguished priests are granted the title of archpriest; the first among these priests is called a protopresbyter.

If a priest is also a tonsured monk he is known as a hieromonk. Hieromonks appointed to direct monasteries, or those honored independently of any appointment, are usually given the title of igumen or abbot. Those of a higher rank are called archimandrites, and bishops are chosen from this rank.

Deacons form the third and lowest rank of the sacred ministry; in Greek, "deacon" means a "server." Deacons assist a bishop or priest during the serving of the Divine Liturgy, or other Mysteries and services, but they may not serve alone. The participation of a deacon in the divine services is not obligatory, and therefore many churches conduct services without them.

Some deacons, particularly in cathedral churches, are deemed worthy of the title of protodeacon. Monks who have received the rank of deacon are called hierodeacons, and the senior of them is called an archdeacon.

The subdeacons are also ordained, and help in the altar. They primarily take part in episcopal services. They vest the serving bishop in his sacred vestments, hold the trikiri and dikiri, and hand them to the bishop to bless those present. They may also assist in changing the altar covers.

In addition to the three orders of sacred ministry, other lower orders of service in the Church include the readers, or "psaltis" (Greek), and the sacristans, or "ecclesiarchs." They belong to the ranks of church servers who are not ordained to their duties through the Mystery of Ordination, but only through a short series of prayers with an episcopal blessing.

Readers have the duty to read and chant with the choir during divine services, and at homes when services are conducted by a priest.

The sacristan is obliged to call the faithful to the divine services with bell-ringing, to light the lamps and candles in the church, to ready and to hand the censer to the serving priest, and to assist the readers in the readings and chantings.

Those who conduct services must be dressed in vestments. These are special, sacred robes which are made of brocade or some similarly suitable material, and adorned with crosses or other symbolic signs.

The vestments of the diaconate are the sticharion, the orarion and the cuffs.

The sticharion is a long garment, open down the length of the sides for a deacon, but entirely unslitted for servers. It is in the form of a cross with an opening for the head and has wide sleeves. The deacon's sticharion may also be worn by subdeacons. The right to wear a sticharion may also be granted to readers and servers. The sticharion signifies purity of soul, necessary for a person of ecclesiastical rank.

The orarion is a long, wide band of the same material as the sticharion. It is fringed on the ends. It is worn over the left shoulder, on top of the sticharion. For protodeacons, it is wound once around the body; for simple deacons, it is worn as shown [***there is no image]. The orarion signifies the Grace of God received by the deacon in the Mystery of Ordination.

The cuffs, or manacles, are of the same material as the sticharion. They are worn around the wrists and laced with cords. They remind those conducting the services that they celebrate the Mysteries or partake of the Mysteries of the Christian faith not by their own powers, but by the power and Grace of God. They also remind us of the bonds that tied the hands of the Saviour during His passion.

The vestments of a priest include the sticharion or the under-vestment, the epitrachelion, the belt, the cuffs, and the phelonion.

The under-vestment is a simpler form of the sticharion, differing from the sticharion in that the sleeves are narrow, with laces at the wrist. It is usually made of a fine, white material. The white color reminds the priest that he must always be of pure soul and lead a blameless life. The under-vestment also recalls the tunic which the Lord Jesus Christ wore on earth and in which He accomplished our salvation.

The epitrachelion, or stole, is similar to the deacon's orarion, only it is worn around the neck. It comes down in front so that the two inner edges are fastened together for convenience. The epitrachelion signifies the double portion of grace bestowed on a priest (in comparison to that of a deacon), for the celebration of the Mysteries. The priest may not conduct any service without his epitrachelion, just as a deacon must wear his orarion.

The belt is worn over the epitrachelion and under-vestment. It signifies readiness to serve the Lord. It also symbolizes the divine power that strengthens the priest during the course of his serving. The belt also recalls the towel which the Saviour was given to wash the disciples' feet at the Mystical Supper.

The phelonion is worn over the other garments. It is a long and wide cape without sleeves. The phelonion has an opening for the head at the top, and is cut away in front to give the hands freedom of movement. In its form it resembles the purple mantle which the Lord was given during His passion. The ribbons sewn on it recall the streams of blood which flowed over His garments. In addition to this, the phelonion reminds all priests of the garment of righteousness with which they must be vested as servants of Christ. A priest wears a pectoral cross around his neck, over the phelonion.

For long and dedicated service, a priest can be given different awards. One is called a nabedrennik, or thigh shield, which is a stiffened, rectangular cloth. It is hung on the right hip from the shoulder by a strap fastened at two upper corners; the nabedrennik signifies a spiritual sword. Another award, similar to the nabedrennik, is the palitsa, which is a diamond-shaped cloth. It is worn on the right hip, while the former is worn on the left. It also represents the spiritual sword, the Word of God, with which the celebrant must battle disbelief and irreverence. Other awards are the skoufia and kamilavka, which are head coverings.

The bishop is vested with all the vestments of a priest--the sticharion, epitrachelion, belt and cuffs. However, for a bishop, the phelonion is replaced with the saccos and the nabedrennik with the palitsa; in addition, a bishop wears the omophorion and the miter. The saccos is the outer vestment of a bishop which resembles a deacon's sticharion, but is longer so that the sticharion and epitrachelion are visible underneath. Like the phelonion, the saccos recalls the purple mantle of the Saviour. The palitsa is hung by a strap, from the upper corner, over the right hip on top of the saccos. For exceptional service the right to wear the palitsa is granted by the ruling bishop to worthy archpriests. For archimandrites, as well for bishops, the palitsa is an indispensable appurtenance to their vestments.

Around the shoulders, over the saccos, a bishop wears the omophorion. This is a long, wide fabric, usually adorned with crosses. It is wrapped around the shoulders of the bishop so that one end falls in front and the other behind. Omophorion is a Greek word meaning "that which goes over the shoulders," and is exclusively an episcopal vestment. As with the priest and his epitrachelion, the bishop may not conduct any service without his omophorion. It reminds the bishop that he must be concerned for the salvation of the fallen, like the good shepherd who, when he has found the lost sheep, carries it home on his shoulders.

At all times, as part of his normal attire and for services, the bishop wears a panagia around his neck in addition to a cross. The panagia, which means "all-holy" in Greek, is a small, round icon of the Saviour or the Theotokos, sometimes adorned with precious stones.

When serving, the bishop wears a miter on his head, adorned with small icons and precious stones. Some say it signifies the crown of thorns which was placed on the head of the Saviour, others, that it represents the Gospel of Christ to which the bishop always remains subject. Archimandrites wear the miter as well, and, in exceptional cases, a ruling bishop can grant the more worthy archpriests the right to wear one in place of the kamilavka.

During the divine services, the bishops use a staff as a sign of ultimate pastoral authority. A staff is also granted to archimandrites and abbots, as they are the heads of monasteries.

During the service, an "orlets," a circular rug with the image of an eagle flying over a city, is placed under the bishop's feet. This symbolizes that the bishop should soar from the earthly to the heavenly like an eagle, and, just as an eagle can see clearly over distances, so must a bishop oversee all parts of his diocese.

The street clothing of a bishop, priest, or deacon includes a black cassock and a riassa. Over the riassa the bishop wears a panagia and a cross, while a priest wears only a cross.

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