As it happens, we own a maniple. Funny story, really.
Some years ago, for reasons which now escape him, Fr. Anonymous took to buying used vestments on eBay. This was emphatically not a good idea, as the vestments so procured demonstrate each time they are used. The kindest thing to be said for our rose chasuble is that it is rose, and therefore needed infrequently.
But the real winner is our white (backup) chasuble, an amply decorated garment bought to supplement one so plain it would be positively Quaker, if Quakers wore chasubles. (And maybe they do; we don't worship with them very often.) Anyway, this white eBay chasuble and its matching stole had been ... modified ... by their original owner, a priest in one of the Old Catholic communions. He had, quite reasonably, sewn a piece of cloth into the back of the stole, to keep the silk -- if it is silk -- from coming into contact with a sweaty neck. That his stitches were irregular, and the resulting pad a bit lumpy, in no way diminishes his good intentions. He then went on to sweat, profusely, leaving the pad a lovely shade of brown. But his most notable modification of the set was to smoke cigarettes, apparently in vast quantities, and so help us we do believe while wearing his Christmas-and-Easter robes. Words like "reeking" fail to do justice to his work; the vestments as received were likely carcinogenic.
After a great deal of Febreze, and many hours spent flapping in an offshore wind, the chasuble and stole were made wearable. It was only then that we took a few moments to consider the third piece in the set: a maniple. Apparently unused, ours had escaped its first owner's unhappy modifications. It was white, clean, and fragrant.
For those who don't know, the maniple is a strip of cloth, worn over the left arm. It seems to have started out as an actual hankie, carried in the hand by noble Romans, which evolved into a decorative silk garment, worn at Mass -- and only at Mass, not at other services -- by Western clerics from subdeacon up to bishop. (The custom was to remove it when preaching. God knows why, and we imagine a few readers do as well, and we expect they'll tell us.) After the Reformation, it was retained principally by Roman Catholics. But, as they rushed to dress themselves more like Protestants in the wake of Vatican II, they issued a 1967 instruction on the liturgy which declared, in part, that "the maniple is no longer required." Which was widely, if illogically, interpreted to mean "forbidden." And so, for the past 45 years, the maniple has been a (nearly) lost garment. There are plenty of them floating around, and you can still buy them from church supply houses, but nobody much wears them.
Except, of course, for eccentrics -- Roman Catholic priests enjoying the indult formerly required for celebration of the Extraordinary Form, and the occasional Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic with a taste for tat. Readers know, of course, to which category poor humble Fr. A, with his closet full of stinky eBay chasubles, belongs.
Now, among certain Roman Catholics, the maniple has become a potent symbol; how you feel about it very nearly stands in for how you feel about the changes to the liturgy since 1967. Some wrinkle their noses at the sight of one, associating it with everything they hated about parochial school. Others look for technical arguments against it, such as the claim that the garment was meant for those who had been ordained as subdeacons -- and that since the church doesn't ordain subdeacons anymore, the maniple is meaningless.
At the other end of the spectrum, a few declare that it is an absolutely obligatory garment, arguing that it is and has always been required for the EF, for which the Novus Ordo is a licit but inadequate replacement. If you want a real celebration, they say, you need real vestments. They sum this up with the neat slogan "No maniple, no Mass." The very best and funniest take on this comes from blogger John Whitehead, who suggests several forms of pro-maniple propaganda, including this:
Perhaps one could adapt one of those nauseating pictures of a kitten clutching a tree branch and bearing the words "Help me to hold on Lord", beloved of a certain type of wet liberal cleric, to one with "Every time a priest celebrates Mass without a maniple God kills a kitten."
(Pastor Joelle is already digging though her sacristy closet, just in case.)
Now, for us Evangelicals, the technical arguments among Roman Catholics -- regarding the language of the 1967 instruction, the silence of subsequent documents, the role of the subdiaconate and so forth -- don't mean a thing. For better or worse, and quite often the latter, we have no rules governing clerical vesture. The question, for us, is not whether a legal document somewhere gives us the right to wear a garment, nor even whether it was worn in (say) Paul Gerhardt's Leipzig church circa 1650. (Which it probably was.) The question is whether it means anything.
With the alb, this is an easy one to answer. From the very beginning, the white robe has been a sign of the new life conferred in baptism. The stole has been a sign of ordination for a very long time, as the chasuble has been a sign that its wearer is celebrating the Eucharist. A bishop's mitre serves a useful purpose, especially in large churches where you can't quite make out the pectoral cross. We don't care much for copes, but at least they match the mitre.
But a maniple? Really?
As with every other vestment, the Middle Ages attached a variety of symbolic meanings to the maniple. And as with every other vestment, these meanings were varied and bogus. It represented the ropes that tied the hands of Jesus; or the towel used by a table servant; it was for wiping away penitential tears -- or whatever else some monk made up. One of Zuhlsdorf's readers, Paramedicgirl, excavated this gem from Alphonsus de Liguori, who claims that the maniple
... was introduced for the purpose of wiping away the tears of devotion that flowed from the eyes of the priest; for in former times priests wept continuously during the celebration of the Mass.
It's beautiful, but ... unlikely. We have little patience with this sort of post facto speculative allegorizing. And yet, that said, there is one proposed symbolism that we do love.
Among its many Latin names, the maniple was sometimes called a sudarium. Literally, this is a sweat-rag, which seems to have been its original purpose. But, as Barbara Dee Baumgarden points out, it was also and specifically the name of the veil that Veronica supposedly used to wipe the sweat from the Lord's brow, and upon which he miraculously left the imprint of his face. (Yes, people, it's like wearing the Shroud of Turin on your wrist.) And we really do like the idea of a vestment, common to all the clergy, which represents the way we are conformed to the Lord's image -- including especially the image of his suffering -- when we celebrate the Eucharist. This idea is alien to many of us these days, but it fits nicely with the Apology's teaching (7-8:28) that those who offer the Word and sacrament do so "in the stead and place of Christ."
So, okay. We have a maniple, and if asked we could give a reasonable and confessional explanation of its presence on our wrist. And yet it is unlikely that we will ever be asked, since we just don't wear the thing. It's not so much that it looks silly -- all vestments look silly, as do most other pieces of clothing, as well as the great majority of naked people. Looking silly is part of the human condition. But to modern eyes, including especially eyes accustomed to the liturgy, the maniple looks silly in a particular way. It looks excessively fussy, even self-consciously antiquarian. And while there are a few parishes in which such a look may well further the spread of the Gospel, we do not believe there to be many.
Look, we could come up with reasons to wear a ruff -- some Lutherans do. And in some Lutheran churches, the ruff is just what the doctor ordered, as a maniple surely is in a Roman Catholic church where the EF is celebrated. But not most.
So our maniple hangs in the closet, virtually pristine, and will do so long after its matching stole and chasuble have completed their work. We dig it out occasionally to amuse and enlighten altar boys, but otherwise we leave it hanging there, reminding nobody but ourselves of the ropes, the sweat, and the image of the Lord in whose name we serve.