Black Funeral Vestments: The Remedy To Our Lutheran Tendencies

Author’s note: Although I intend to briefly explain Lutheran doctrines, I am well aware that there are varying levels of commitment to Luther’s original exposition on the matter of Justification. I thought it best to pull from the Solid Declarations of the Formula of Concord because they were the best articulation of the Augsburg Confessions.

About a month ago,  The Socratic Catholic published a short meditation on the Beauty of the Requiem Mass with its use of black chasuble and Dies Irae sequence. I confess that in my standard Catholic upbringing, I hadn’t heard the sequence or seen a black vestment until I made the conscious decision to inquire about the traditional liturgy. In particular, I have wondered why black vestments have fallen into such disuse. Black vestments are a dizzying beauty and seem to me to be the only things capable of capturing the paradoxes of Christians living to die and dying to live. So why the refusal to wear them by so many priests? My sense is that as catechesis has tended towards an emphasis on the experience of mercy and forgiveness- to the detriment of a focus on the 4 Last things- we have forgotten (or avoided) to work out our salvation in fear in trembling. We do not fear the possibility of eternal justice because most of us have been taught the joy of the Lord is inescapable. The only logical conclusion from our catechesis we can draw is that there is no need to offer penance and prayer for the deceased because they have already been raptured by the love of Christ to their reward. If that really is the case, then it only makes sense that we would wear white for our funerals. But I would like a take a few moments to argue 2 points. Catholic Dogma does not allow for such a view and our refusal to wear black vestments in lieu of white carries the danger of communicating a Lutheran understanding of Justification/Salvation which is inimical to the flourishing of the interior life.

The ancient principle Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi is ever at play in our liturgical expression. Translated, it means that the law of prayer is the law of belief. What the Church says and uses in her official prayer should tell us all exactly what she believes. Take, for example, the collect prayer from the Requiem Mass.

Oh God, the creator and redeemer of all the faithful: grant unto the souls of Thy servants and handmaidens the remission of all their sins: that through devout supplications, they may obtain the pardon which they have ever desired. Who lives and reigns with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi means that anyone listening to this prayer should be able to draw a wealth of theology from the prayers of the Church. For instance, the fact that we are praying for the remission of sin on behalf of the deceased should tell us that we believe that the souls of the faithfully departed can be interceded for even after their death.  The mention of devout supplications should bring our mind to the Catholic doctrine that devout supplications are efficacious before the throne of God, and so on. Easy Peasy.

The trouble is that the principle doesn’t just apply to the words we use during the liturgy. It applies to EVERYTHING in the liturgy, from the way we chant to the type of incense used, the color and cut of the vestments, the way the priest folds his hands, the manner of genuflection, the eschatological depiction of saints in artistic form, and the architectural style and ornamentation of Churches. Every element proclaims the true and orthodox Deposit of Faith handed to us from Christ himself through the Apostles.

incenseAllow me to drive my point home by drawing our attention to the use of incense. The most obvious use of incense is to envelop the edifice in a sweet smelling fragrance. To what end? The fragrance reminds us of the abundant sweetness of Christ’s sacramental presence. Puffs of incense contract and expand to the whim of the breeze as they rise above our heads. In the same way, so our prayers expand and contract to the whim of the of the Holy Ghost as our prayers rise to the altar on high. Lastly, incense obfuscates the action of the sacred mysteries happening on the altar, where his “majesty is concealed from us, and his grace is revealed before us” (St.Ephrem the Syrian, Nativity 16). The obfuscation functions as a reminder that God, as he is, is incomprehensible to us. His ways are not our ways. From the peaks of Mount Sanai to the Incarnation of the Word, his glory is veiled to us until the day of our Beatific Vision. So what, then, does the color of our vestments tell us?

Black Vestment 1 When it comes to the death of a Catholic, the Church allows for one of three colors, violet, black, or white. As Violet is almost never an option chosen, we shall not concern ourselves with it here. However, the traditional black is usually associated with a period of mourning, prayer, and death. In addition to the black, these vestments are usually lined or embroidered with gold or silver to convey the radiance of Christ who alone conquers death to redeem our Fallen Human Nature, offering the possibility of everlasting life. This is the reason why other than the mass of the dead, we have traditionally worn black during the Good Friday service.

corpus christiTraditionally, white/gold vestments are associated with joyful celebration. These vestments speak of the opalescent glory of God. They speak to the radiant joy the Church experiences as she is gifted the sacred mysteries on the altar, the consequence of the glorious Resurrection.  This is the reason why the Church asks us to wear white/gold on the Solemnities of Easter, Christmas, and Corpus Christi. Currently, the custom for our Requiem Masses is to use White and Gold, in what I can only assume is an attempt to the console the loved ones of the deceased. And while I can absolutely sympathize with the priest who desires to console, I believe that the use of white/gold vestments subverts the Catholic doctrines on justification and opens us up to the errors of Luther. Allow me to explain.

Martin Luther opted for a rather bleak view of Human Nature. He reasoned from his personal inability to conquer sin- and a very unhealthy scrupulosity- that since the sin of Adam destroyed both our likeness to God and our will to be moral, sin was a necessity in our lives. He claimed that even good acts are sinful because they are the result of some selfish or wicked tendency in man. For Luther, Human Nature was irredeemably and totally depraved. Since, in accord with his depraved nature, man cannot possibly have any merit before the throne of God, mans righteousness or justification -if there is such a thing to speak of- must always be external to him. Enter Jesus Christ. The merit of Jesus’ merciful sacrifice is so abundant and total that it covers the wicked sinner. What Luther meant when he said that man is made righteous is nothing more than that Jesus’ obedience to the father through the Cross and Resurrection has covered us so that we needn’t worry about the punishment due to our still sinful natures (Solid. Declar. III, sec. 15). What then of faith? Whereas most people would think of faith as an act of assent to the revealed truths of God, Luther contested that faith isn’t an act at all because faith is a good, and good acts are impossible because Human Nature is depraved. Instead, Luther tried to clarify that faith is a gift from God which allows one to assent to the belief that Christ’s merits have covered you (Solid. Declar. III, Sec. 13). Faith here is only the mechanism by which the sinner reaches his hand out to grab the cloak of Christ’s merits, for no amount of contrition or love of God could merit such a gift (Solid. Declar. III, Sec. 31). There are two corollaries that Luther drew from his understanding of Justification.

The first was that, in opposition to the Church Fathers and the entire Christian Monastic Tradition, Luther determined that ultimately, man has no need of growing in virtue or acts of penance, primarily because he genuinely thought it impossible, and secondarily because he felt that if he allowed that acts of virtue and penance could contribute to our own righteousness, it would undermine the radical gift of Christ’s grace and our emotional security in our own salvation. The second corollary that Luther drew was that so long as the faith of the individual was genuine, there was always an assurance of salvation. Luther would advise Melanchthon

“Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let
your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the
victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we
are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides.

Catholic Dogma does not allow us to speak of a human Nature that is totally depraved. We speak of a nature wounded by Ancestral Sin.We reason, from our difficulty in conquering sin, that our natures are truly good but concupiscent, or inclined towards selfish evil. Although human freedom is weakened by this inclination, it is not damaged such that we cannot choose to order our lives in response to what is truly good. In the Catholic view, just as the dullness of a knife does not render the knife a spoon or some other utensil, so the dullness of Human Nature does not render us depraved. The soul, like the knife, can be sharpened and returned to its former glory. Man’s righteousness or justification then is not an event which is extrinsic to him. It is a gratuitous gift which intrinsically restores what has once been lost.  What affects this intrinsic transformation is his relationship with Jesus Christ. Luther may have been right in declaring as St. Paul did that because of the Paschal Mystery death has no sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). As the Byzantines like to say “by death, he trampled death”. But the Catholic view allows for a real synergy or cooperation between God and man where Luther could not. The Catholic view understands faith as man’s response to everything God has revealed (CCC 26), including his saving works on the Cross. The blood and water which flow from the side of Christ are the conception of the Church wherefrom Christ offers the possibility of justification/regeneration in the sacrament of Baptism. The decision to immerse oneself in the Baptismal Waters really does affect a regeneration of soul because to be submerged into the waters is to be washed in the water from the side of Christ whose righteousness adheres in the soul. Notice that above I specifically said that the sacrifice of Christ offers the possibility of Justification. The reason why is because, unlike Luther’s system, here man, by virtue of his free will, can freely choose to deny or cooperate synergistically with God’s prompting.  Just like with Luther there are two major corollaries.

The first corollary is this. If man’s justification and salvation are dependent upon his free choice to accept or deny a relationship with his redeemer, then that relationship is going to need to be deepened and strengthened every day. In other words, it is going to take some good work. What this does not mean is that one has to “pay your way” to make God love you. Such an idea would be ridiculous. God’s offer of redemption is an invitation to grow in his love. But love, by its nature, must give of itself in service to the beloved, otherwise, it may never properly be called love. So, the faith of the repentant sinner must produce works to the honor and glory of his beloved Redeemer. Good works such as praying, almsgiving, fasting, and simple mortifications are necessary for our salvation because they help us regulate our inclinations to turn from God and allow us to always choose the higher good that God is. They are the natural fruit of love for God in the same way that breakfast-in-bed may be the natural fruit of spousal love. And, as acts of love urge the lovers to give of themselves in greater intensity, so the good works urge God to grant that His righteousness dwell more profoundly in the soul. The trouble with these good works is that they are hard because we are soft, which leads me to the second corollary. If a man is justified by true faith producing good works, then he is also condemned by the lack of them. The Epistle of James says that “faith without works is dead”(James 2:20). Every time a man sins he is actively choosing, despite his knowledge of The Natural Law, to turn away from God and forfeit the gratuitous righteousness given to him by God. Such acts demonstrate a clear lack of tenderness for the beloved and render the justified man’s faith dead. If a man is not actively trying to lead a life of holiness, he will passively be brought to judgment by his unchecked passions.

Why all the technical mumbo-jumbo for an article about liturgical vestments? My answer is this: If Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi means that every aspect of the liturgy communicates a Catholic belief in the sacred mysteries, then we must always be careful to ask if the symbols we choose are communicating effectively. When we consider the purpose of a Requiem Mass we must ask if the symbols used are effectively communicating what Catholic believe about death. Requiem Masses, contrary to popular belief, are not a celebration of the life of the deceased. They are not for reminiscing about the life of the deceased and how they touched us.  They are the tender efforts of mourning Mother Church, to entreat the Lord whose property is always to have mercy, that her child would be counted among the saints by the merits of her tearful supplications. They are an acknowledgment of the great love of God who has gratuitously given us the ability to offer prayer and penance to cover the times when the deceased may not have offered their own. They are a sober reminder that all souls must come before the judgment seat of God to account for their lives.

black chasubleIt is a common custom to console the family members of the deceased by saying that “They are in a better place”. But such a claim may be patently false if the deceased has not practiced virtue and begged for his daily bread in hope. While our hope is that all men might be saved, speaking like this seems to communicate a world-view which is not Catholic. For, a Catholic who understands the doctrine of Justification must surely know that more than ever, the death of a loved one is cause for storming Heaven with prayers for the repose of souls. It seems to me that in all the sadness and chaos that accompanies the passing of a loved one, the same color we use to celebrate the joy and exuberance of the Birth of Christ isn’t appropriate. The use of white vestments for a funeral may run the risk of duping the mourning faithful into an assurance we could not possibly give them. Remember that the mistake of Luther stemmed from the need to assure himself from his own scrupulosity. White vestments may accidentally communicate to an uncatechized Catholic that there isn’t a need to pray for the dead because their justification has already been won. Black vestments, on the other hand, tend to disabuse people of this Lutheran interpretation. They are a reminder of the day when Christ will come to judge both the quick and the dead on the merits of their love. They are the Church’s acknowledgment of the abysmal loss we feel when someone has passed. The gold and silver embroidery are there to remind us that the light of Christ illumines every darkness.

Now, I am not arguing that every priest who uses white vestments is a closeted Lutheran and that only “real Catholics” use black. What I am arguing is that one of the options here seems to convey a depth of Catholic theology, while the other seems to carry with it the danger of communicating a theology which is distinctly Anti-Catholic. To those who think that what I have espoused here is entirely too nitpicky, I will offer a final thought. Who among us can really say that they have lived their lives in such perfect love that they will not likely have to spend time in the purgatorial flame? On that day, would you rather that your loved-ones not pray for you because they have mistakenly assured themselves of your reward? Or would you rather that the Church with all her merits pray with your family that you would be released to pray for them. If you would rather the latter, then I suggest we start insisting on the use of black vestments in preparation for the end of our lives.

Let us beseech Him that the blood and water from His side would justify and compel us to live out our lives in love and service and that we may see a swift return to the use of black vestments. Let us storm Heaven and continue to give it The Ol’ Catholic Try.


Author: Ambrose Söze

Ambrose Söze teaches Philosophy and Theology at the Seraphicum in Houston Texas.

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