I wore a robe for the first time yesterday.
Not a bathrobe, obviously. A clerical robe. Not one of the nice white albs either but a Big, Imposing Black Robe.
I don’t come from a robe-wearing tradition and haven’t spent much time in places with ministers with vestments (or candles, or, really, much liturgy) until this year. So when my supervisory minister told me that I’d be wearing one of hers for all the services this summer, I felt a little giddy, like a child playing dress-up, donning a fireman’s uniform or a nurse’s scrubs. Like I was putting on a career. Putting on an identity.
Not coming from a robe-wearing denomination, I’d always just assumed this was a ritual that churches did in keeping with what they had done for thousands of years. I was attracted to the black clerical robes, the white albs, the crazy-looking cassocks. I pondered the convenience of a dictated wardrobe choice on Sunday mornings: no distracted parishioners analyzing the wardrobe choices of the “lady preacher.”
This past Sunday morning, as my supervisor passed me the robe and then went in to give the announcements, I wasn’t thinking of any of these things. All I could think about was how heavy it felt and how small I felt wearing it. All the particularities of who I am — my writing and class assignments, favorite movies and books, hobbies and pet peeves — seemed diminished. Who was I then, in that time and place, at 11:05 on a Sunday morning? A person whose identity was less important than her message.
A very small person under the weight of responsibility. The weight of being faithful and helping others to be faithful to what my church history professor calls The Tradition. The 2000 years of people that have triumphed and stumbled and tried to be faithful to the God of love who came to take on our flesh and to draw us back from our wandering.
The hallway of my field ed church, which itself has over 220 years of tradition, is lined with portraits of all the very male, very white former ministers. As I waited for my supervisor to come out and for us to officially process into the church, I wondered if they felt the same weight when they did this. The weight of feeling small, feeling inadequate for the task of reading and teaching and preaching and living the epic story of the God who loves and pursues a faithless people. I thought about St. Augustine and all the Cappadocians and St. Macrina and Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther and John Calvin and John Wesley. Did they feel the weight of the robe, the weight of the tradition, the weight of the good news of God on their shoulders as they first began?
I can only imagine they did. And as I stood there in the hallway, adjusting my lipstick and feeling the gaze of 200 years of ministers, I realized that while I felt nervous, I did not feel misplaced. I felt what I’ve felt on and off for the past year — the nagging realization that this garment, this identity is mine to wear, however big it may seem.
My supervisor finally came back, and we walked to the front of the little sanctuary of our small but packed rural church. As we walked in, and I tried to look properly ministerial–reflective but pleasant, with a note of solemnity–I heard a loud whisper of one of the parishioners, “Look at little Christina in that big old robe.”
It’s big on me now. But with the grace of God, I’ll grow into it.