HE WORD “ALB” is simply the Latin word for “white,” so it should be no surprise that the alb is always made with white fabric. Its basic purpose is to cover the minister’s secular clothing during the sacred liturgy, thereby reminding those present that what transpires in the sanctuary is a foretaste of the heavenly realm.
The imagery of the saints wearing white in heaven is scriptural. In the Book of Revelation, the bride of the Lamb is described wearing “a bright, clean linen garment” (Rev 19:8). Later in the same chapter, “the armies of heaven” are said to be riding horses and “wearing clean white linen.” The magnificent hymn, Te Deum, moreover, refers to the “white-robed army of martyrs” praising God (Te mártyrum candidátus laudat exércitus).
Another facet of the alb’s significance is that it should serve to remind us of our Baptismal identity. In this sense, the alb hearkens to mind the white garment we received at our first Sacrament, as well as the Pauline theme of “putting on” Christ (“All of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” Gal 3:27; “Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ,” Rom 13:14; “Put on the new self,” Eph 4:24).
As the priest puts on his alb, he offers the following prayer:
Dealba me, Domine, et munda cor meum; ut, in sanguine Agni dealbatus, gaudiis perfruare sempiternis.
Cleanse me, O Lord, and purify my heart, that, washed in the Blood of the Lamb, I may attain unto everlasting joys.
There is a very surprising image used in this prayer, and it centers on the rich word dealbatus. The English translation I have provided above gives this word as “washed,” but it could more literally be translated as “having been made white.” The word “alb” even appears within this longer word. Isn’t it curious to suggest that, being washed in Blood, one may be made white? This unusual image, I believe, is meant to strike our ears strangely, leading us to deeper meditation on the cleansing power of Christ’s sacrifice.
In the latter portion of the prayer, a complex word appears. Perfruare is the second-person singular form of the present active subjunctive. It is, furthermore, a deponent verb (i.e., a verb that is active in meaning but passive in form). The use of the subjunctive here makes a beautiful theological point. The prayer asks that the one praying might become worthy/deserving of everlasting joys. Implicit in the prayer, therefore, is the notion that we are not, of ourselves, worthy or deserving of heavenly bliss. We may become so, though, by the sanctifying grace that comes to us by the action of the sacred liturgy.
Yet another phrase in this prayer warrants closer consideration. The words Munda cor meum appear not only in this vesting prayer, but also in one of the private prayers prayed inaudibly during Holy Mass. These are the opening words of the prayer of preparation offered by the deacon or priest before proclaiming the Gospel. At both of these moments, how fitting it is to offer a preparatory prayer for purity.
Like the other vestments we are considering in this series, the alb is traditionally a priestly vestment. In recent decades, this understanding has been eroded as the alb has been reinvented as the vesture for a variety of functions within the liturgy. JMO considers this topic HERE.
Next week, we shall consider the vesting prayer associated with the cincture.
Part 1 • Introduction
Part 2 • The Hand Washing
Part 3 • The Amice
Part 4 • The Alb
Part 5 • The Cincture
Part 6 • The Maniple
Part 7 • The Stole
Part 8 • The Chasuble
Part 9 • The Dalmatic