“Blessed is God, Who pours forth His grace upon His priests like ointment upon the head, which flows down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron, which flows down to the hem of his garment.“ (Priest’s Vesting Prayer of the Epitrachelion; cf. Ps 132/133: 2)
The liturgical vestment worn by priests and bishops around the neck, called “epitrachelion“ (from “ἐπὶ,“ on, and “τράχηλος,“ neck), is an equivalent of the Western stole. According to Late-Byzantine commentaries (of the early-15th c. St. Symeon of Thessaloniki and the 14th c. St. Nicholas Kabasilas), and according to today’s Prayer of the Epitrachelion, quoted above, which a priest says as he puts on his epitrachelion before the Divine Liturgy, it represents the grace of the priesthood.
But our earliest witness to the “epitrachelion,“ the liturgical commentator St. Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople (+733), had a rather different understanding of this vestment, relating it to the Passion: “The epitrachelion is the cloth that was put on Christ at the hands of the High Priest,“ writes Germanos, “and that was on His neck as He was bound and dragged to His passion.“ This passion-symbolism of the epitrachelion is reflected in old (pre-Nikonian, that is, pre-mid-17th c.) Slavonic liturgical books, which provide a different “Vesting Prayer,“ a passion-verse, for the epitrachelion: “They took Jesus and bound Him," a priest would say, before the mid-17th c., as he put on his epitrachelion, "and delivered Him to Pontius Pilate the governor“ (cf. Mt 27: 2).
So what do I “get“ out of this little history lesson, for my church-life today? Whenever I see a priest or bishop in an epitrachelion, I’m reminded of the grace of the priesthood, along with the cross-carrying “yoke“ it entails. I’m reminded, that is, of the humbling, grace-filled, self-sacrificing calling that is the priesthood. May God be blessed, as He “pours forth His grace upon His priests.“ Amen!