GSC 9 December 2018
The secondary school I attended was somewhat well-known for its uniform of a purple blazer, which had as a downside that we were very noticeable out and about. It was quite a noble colour I think, but still not quite what we might call a fashion statement!
And it’s clothing I want to talk to you about today, inspired by that wonderfully clear image in our first reading: “Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress, put on the beauty of the glory of God for ever.” (Baruch 5). The image of what we wear is one that the Church has always used: the newly baptised are often clothed with a white shawl or something, symbolising new life. A new priest has a chasuble placed upon him. A monk or a nun will have a new veil placed on them in a rite called clothing which admits them fully to the order.
I think there are three aspects that we can helpfully be reminded about our own Christian vocation by this clothing image.
First, what we wear is visible. It says something about us. For the clergy, wearing the clerical collar makes it obvious that they are priests or ministers. You would only wear an Arsenal top if you were a real fan; if you had a Pepper Pig pair of pyjamas, I would guess you watched it often. We’re making a public statement by what we wear. Our Christian faith is similarly to be something noticeable. People should see the way we treat other people or how we prioritise worship in our lives and think: there’s something different about them. But if, in reality, all they hear on our lips is swearing when we say, “Oh God,” or if we come away from Mass and have a hatred in our hearts or a criticism of our neighbour, they will see little of our Christian faith, the only statement we will be making is that God hasn’t touched our life; there’ll be nothing compelling about it. Being visible in our faith isn’t necessarily about having a leaflet in our hand and standing by a tube station, indeed I think that’s a rather un-Christian thing to do, but it does mean we won’t be the people who snap at the staff at a bar or in a cafe; we won’t be the people who have no hope when someone dies. Our faith will be visible; it will be as if we wearing it on our sleeve for all to see. As we prepare for the birth of our Saviour we’d do well to make sure our Christian Faith is evident in our life.
Second, our clothing covers shame. Adam and Eve are created naked, of course, in the account we have in the book of Genesis. This is the time of our innocency: “they were both naked, and were not ashamed.” But, after they had sinned, “the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Genesis 3:7). Thus shame enters the world as a result of sin; and with it comes embarrassment, fear of what others think, insecurity about appearances, a dissatisfaction with and nervousness about how we look. Aware of their sin, our human parents hide themselves from God.
During Advent we think of the life of St John the Baptist, the Lord’s herald. The scriptures tell us that he wore “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt round his waist.” It’s meant to remind us of Elijah (II Kings 1:8), who was to return to usher in a kingdom of the end times. The clothing was deliberately simple, austere. Might we deny ourselves this week of Advent some pleasure or some habit or something usual? Thus we remind ourselves that we are more than just a mince-pie-consuming machine.
In Advent too, clothing ought to make us think of practical steps we take to be sorrowful for our sin and seek to atone for it. Remember how Jonah converts the people of Ninevah. Jonah, having run away and been swallowed by a whale, ends up before the King of Ninevah and announced the need to say sorry and to stop sinning. And the response to hearing the Good News of the salvation of the Lord is to proclaim a fast. The King himself rises from his throne, removes his robe and covers himself with sackcloth (Jonah 3:5-6). This may seem an antiquated response to sin with nothing to teach us about how we live our lives today but what can we do to recognise our need for forgiveness? Maybe speak to a priest about making a Confession before Christmas, maybe send a Christmas Card to that person you fell out with years ago, have a plan as to how you’re going to correct a sin you often do, or a sin which is you often failing to do something.
Third, clothing creates an identity. Stripping someone is often done to remove their identity, to make them less a person. When the Nazis were about to kill the Jews in the gas chambers, they stripped them. So, also with Jesus before He died - He was stripped of His garments. This is done to embarrass and to humiliate, but also to remove something of the person’s individuality, and thus to make them easier to kill, because, ironically, they somehow become less personal, less of a fellow human.
As I said earlier, the Church’s liturgies have often created a symbolism through clothing, putting garments on to indicate an identity. Our relationship is bound up in what we know we have received from the Lord and clothing reminds us of this. Think of the Prodigal Son, who had sinned against Heaven and had lost the right to be called son. He returns to his dad, who’s thrilled to see him, despite the sin. His old dad goes and clothes him, commanding the servants, “Quickly, bring out a robe - the best one - and put it on him; put a ring on his fingers and sandals on his feet.” The clothing indicates rehabilitation (Luke 15), being loved.
Think too of the wonderful account of Joseph in the Old Testament, who was to be clothed in a coat of many colours, a coat of long sleeves. Joseph is Israel’s favourite son, “the son of his old age,” not necessarily very useful in that he will never be in charge of the estate, being the youngest, but Israel nonetheless delights in him and the coat is a sign of that, a sign which the jealous brothers strip off Joseph before they knock him into the pit, a pit without water in and they leave him there for dead (Genesis 37:1-24).
So, brothers and sisters, be glad at the identity you have in Jesus. Who are you? Well, you’re a servant of God. It may be you get for Christmas clothing you’re not really keen on, the same old pair of socks or another scarf. May our Advent be one where we cover our sin with the grace we find in this Sacrament of the Eucharist. Thus may we be more visible a follower of Christ and know how wonderful it is to walk with Him.
“Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress, put on the beauty of the glory of God for ever.”