“I like your scarf!” She was referring to my stole. It’s the long piece of fabric that priests where around their necks and that hangs down in front on either side. Mine was green silk embroidered with gold thread — very pretty, ornate, traditional. I thought it was funny that she called it a scarf. I get funny comments and questions all the time from people who don't quite understand my garb or my position. "Are you a nun?" is the most common one.
Calling a stole a scarf was something I hadn't heard, though, and it turns out I was the one with something to learn about my garb and my position. A google search led me to discover that the stole has its origins in the "scarf of office" among imperial officials during the Roman Empire. When Christianity began to spread under Constantine, clergy became members of the Roman administration. Accordingly, they were given specific and visible honors designating their imperial and ecclesiastical rank. These honors eventually became what we know as the stole. There are many more details in this scarf-to-stole story — details that occur over centuries — but that’s the gist of the ancestry. I don't love it.
I'm much more partial to the idea that the stole is patterned after the Jewish prayer shawl, or the yoke of Christ, or even the cloth Jesus used to wipe his disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. But these theological explanations apparently came after-the-fact; they were used to justify something already in place. On one hand, this seems like a bummer. On the other, perhaps it was part of the plan. God was quietly involved in all those scarf-to-stole details the whole time, including the development of theology to back it up.
Isn’t this how life works? The sacred is rarely devoid of the secular, and vice versa. Circumstances come about, choices are made — by us and others, both good and bad. Events happen that are in and out of our control. Some relationships fail while others flourish. We can look back on all these things and see God somewhere in the midst of it. Or not.
I choose the former. I choose to see God’s hand at work in our lives, guiding us to do what is right, bringing good out of bad, bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice (to paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.). I choose to see blessings in disguise. I choose to see God weeping with us, rejoicing with us, conforming us to Christ through the struggles and the celebrations, helping us to hold onto the lessons and let go of the baggage.
These are the very reasons I wear a stole when I stand in front of the church to pray and bless. At first, it was to make sure people saw me. I wanted to draw attention and signal that I’m an ordained minister. Now I’m more conscious of the “yoke of Christ” I put around my neck before I step outside. It symbolizes perfectly the invitation to turn to him in prayer:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
May you cast all of your cares on Christ Jesus and always stand yoked to him.