Alb is an English word that refers to a vestment worn underneath the priest’s chasuble, it comes from the Latin word alba, meaning, “white.”
Traditionally, the alb is a white linen garment and it dates to the very beginnings of Christianity in the Roman Empire.
Alb similarly, was an ordinary white tunic worn by the Romans and Greeks, but later became associated with the rite of Baptism.
In the early centuries of the Church, men and women were baptized completely naked, which symbolizes a means of setting aside their former way of life before entering the baptismal font. Then, after rising from the baptismal font, the newly baptized were given a white garment, which symbolizes their new birth in Christ.
This ceremony of clothing is still observed in the modern baptismal rite, where the priest while placing either a white garment (or a white stole) on the child recites a prayer as thus.
N., you have become a new creation,
and have clothed yourself in Christ.
See the outward sign of your Christian dignity in this white garment. With your family and friends to assist you by word and example, to bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.
It is also taught that all the baptized are clothed in a spiritual “wedding garment” and that when we die, we will (by God’s grace) present it unstained to God. In that case, this white garment, symbolically, is our readiness for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (which is heaven).
The newly baptized would then wear the alb during the first week after Easter, by doing so, he offers a public witness to their newfound faith in Christ.
In accordance with the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Second Sunday of Easter “was as a result of that, known as dominica in albis (deponendis ), that’s the Sunday of the (laying aside of the) white garments.” It was on this particular day that the white garment would be put aside and regular clothing could then be worn.
During the medieval England, the newly baptized wore their white robes in the whole Easter season, and they would put them aside on Pentecost, which is also known as Whitsunday (“White Sunday”) in an English custom.
Over the past few centuries in the Church, the alb came to become more and more associated with priestly vestments. Though the symbolism is retained, reminding the priest of his baptism, but also with an added dimension.
Based on the Office for Liturgical Celebrations, the alb “reminds us of the new and immaculate clothing that every Christian has received through Baptism.
Therefore, the alb is a symbol of the sanctifying grace received in the first sacrament and is also considered to be a symbol of the purity of heart that is needed to enter into the joy of the eternal vision of God in heaven.”
Before wearing the alb, the priest would say a prayer that recalls this symbolism and which contains “a reference to Revelation 7:14 (Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward).”
Under current legislation, the alb has been returned to more common usage in the Church and it is an optional vestment for lay ministers who have a role in the Mass (such as lector or server).
This recent development has also tried to reconnect the alb to its original use as a vestment of the baptized.