WHO ARE YOU WEARING?
In our time, the Hollywood red carpet is an image with which we are all familiar, with the media people constantly asking the celebrities “And who are you wearing?” We are a culture obsessed with outward appearances and it seems we feel a need to identify with certain brand names in order to feel good about ourselves.
As a five year old, at Christmas that year I received my first hockey outfit, and so that night I went to bed dressed as a Toronto Maple Leaf. How we dress is a statement about ourselves, our status, our character, our identity. We are often extremely reluctant to let go of that. I was convinced that one guy I knew actually slept in his clericals. As the Beatles sang it: “What do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine” (I Get By With a Little Help from My Friends). At the end of the day, who are you? More than clothing, more than a costume, we hope.
Some time before the coming of Jesus, the prophet Baruch addressed himself to the city of Jerusalem in these words: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. For God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.”
From ancient times it has been a custom to wear “the garment of praise” – clergy put on vestments before entering the sanctuary, as a sign of their reverence and of the significance of the situation. People put on special clothing to go to church. Clothing symbolizes many things. Tearing your clothes and putting on sack cloth was a way of showing grief and loss. Until recent times widows have worn black for a certain period of time after the loss of a husband.
Years before, the prophets had warned the people to put on sack cloth as a sign of the devastation and distress that was coming. Jeremiah (6.26) says: “O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.” The destroyer did come, in the form of invading armies, and people did lose their children, and their homes, and their freedom, and the Israelites, by the time Baruch wrote, had suffered for several hundred years under the rule of much more powerful nations, and many of the people had spent much of that time in slavery and in exile.
The prophet speaks of a huge homecoming, of a return, and he speaks of it from the point of view of the city of Jerusalem looking out toward the eastern horizon in hope, and seeing her citizens, her people, returning to her. Baruch offers a vision of restoration after years of exile. People who have been imprisoned, enslaved and oppressed always suffer painful and humiliating experiences. I often seem to be scolding my son about his tattoos (“You’re going to wear that for life, you know”), but also realize that it is another way of identifying oneself. Easy when it’s a choice, but people who have been in prison have often been tattooed, branded, pierced, shaved bald and forced to wear humiliating outfits. The effects are much more than skin deep, as any Jew who survived the death camps can testify. Regaining a sense of dignity and worth is not an easy process for people who have been used and abused, treated less as people and more as things.
Jerusalem was the symbol of Jewish identity, their spiritual centre, their centre, their home, and the people of Israel, after their experience of exile and slavery, have been “clothed” in a certain mindset, a way of seeing themselves and relating to others. The prophet offers a vision of redemption and transformation. To people who had lost their homes, their place of belonging, the promise of a return – to those who had lost their dignity; regaining their identity as God’s people, after years of having been treated as worthless, as non-entities, regaining a sense of their own significance once again.
It is a message of transformation. “For God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.’” We are reminded of the name changes of Abram, Sarai, Jacob, Simon, and Saul. Whoever you were before, don’t worry, God will give you a new beginning, a new sense of identity, so that you can be who you are. I have known a number of people who have changed their name for various reasons, trying to rid themselves of a certain past and to establish a new sense of who they are.
I recall the moving story of a 72 year old woman in Hong Kong named Alfreda, a former prostitute, who was discovered cleaning the sidewalk and gutters in front of a brothel. After 60 years in the profession, she was too old to be a prostitute any longer, so she had been given this menial job which barely kept her alive, but was still tied like a slave to the sordid, dangerous and demeaning life, because she did not know any other way to be or any other way of understanding herself. Still addicted to heroin, she had no identity card and in the eyes of the authorities was a non-entity – talk about identity theft!
She was discovered by Christian missionaries working in the slums of that city, who in speaking to her gave her a sense that she was not doomed to live out her life that way – that God has a different destiny in mind for us, if we will believe. Eventually she went to live with this Christian community and not only found a new home in community, but a whole new sense of self and identity.
Several years later, having met someone who loved the “new” Alfreda, she married, proudly and appropriately wearing a white dress, her transformation total, able to live in a new joy and freedom and self-respect.
“Who are you wearing?” St Paul tells Christians that we must “put on the lord Jesus Christ.” This was symbolized in the ancient baptismal rituals by requiring those being baptized to strip off their old clothing, which symbolized their lifestyle, status, attitudes, identity, etc., and to put on a new outfit (a tradition we continue in using white baptismal gowns) and to take on a new lifestyle – a new sense of self — a new way of being – as a child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ.
A drastic change of clothing often signals something much deeper going on – we may think of the Hippie movement of the 1960’s, or the Goth look of more recent years.
The beloved and well-known St. Francis of Assisi realized how much his rich and comfortable lifestyle hindered his efforts and ability to be a true follower of Christ and separated him from the poor, the very people Jesus had described as “blessed” and he couldn’t stand his own hypocrisy. After months of struggling with his conscience, and his father in particular, Francis finally decided to walk to the centre of the city, where he stripped naked in front of the Cathedral, then walked out of town to live the rest of his life as a mendicant monk.
We might ask: What “garment” do we need to take off? What attitude or habitual sense of identity do we need to let go of in order to embrace our identity as children of God, brothers and sisters in the love of Christ? Because of fear, peer pressure, and habit, many Christians never get there – never break through to that place of freedom of true self and authentic personhood, and joy and peace, which the Way of Christ offers us. Are we clothed as ourselves or are we disguised as someone else?
The prophet John the Baptist purposely clothed himself in a way that distinguished himself from the cultural and religious traditions in which he had been raised. Raised as the son of a Temple priest, John for some reason identified himself with the ancient prophets whose vocation was to recall Israel to its true identity and purpose. His way of dressing himself was shocking and distinct, a sign of the need for people to break away from convention and custom and complacency and to embrace the coming Messiah.
He issued a radical call to repent even to people who saw themselves as faithful and religious – people who saw themselves as above reproach – people who took their status as God’s people for granted. Israel, having been liberated during the time of Baruch, had fallen asleep and was once again in need of a massive wake-up call. John went out to the desert – a remote place in the wilderness – far from the influences of the city and its compromise and conformity and called the people out. His baptism gave people the opportunity of a new beginning and helped to create a new more inclusive fellowship of Jew and Gentile in the time before Jesus’ arrival.
For John, none of their existing credentials or excuses would do – a new age was dawning and it was important for all to break away from the status quo and to open themselves up to the entry of God into human life in the person of Jesus. Turn from your old life, and whether you think you’re perfect or not, repent and turn toward God in humility – to the One who knows who you really are. John’s message is the same for all: let go of your assumptions and expectations about how things are and enter the water so you can emerge in a new light.
“The clothes make the man.” Really, who says that? The clothing industry, perhaps. As Christians, as people who find their identity in Jesus Christ, and not in any particular culture, it is important to remember that the prevailing image of Christianity is of a man stripped naked and nailed to a cross. The choice to wear a cross in our time is often much more than a fashion statement. Dignity is not in what we wear (or who we wear) but in who we are, but sometimes we forget who we are and allow ourselves to become “clothed” with other attitudes, customs, and labels.
In Advent, we recall that the Child who comes to offer us a new lease on life comes without clothing – naked – as does every child, and thus points us in the direction of the unconditional love of God. May this Advent be a time of opening to the God who loves us as we are.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL appointed readings for Advent II:
Baruch 5:1-9 Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven. 4 For God will give you evermore the name, “Righteous Peace, Godly Glory.” 5 Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. 6 For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. 7 For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God. 8 The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command. 9 For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
Philippians 1:3-11 I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”