The comments on the “what should you wear to church?” thread have been interesting, but from the beginning the question sent my mind spinning in a different direction than the practical discussion taking place over there. A lovely response from my friend Michelle Francl has brought those thoughts into a clearer focus, and the result is a theological reflection on the more practical question. I don’t think this answer is unconnected to the original post, but my thoughts have more to do with the meaning of church dress than with the pragmatics.
First, what have I worn to church? Many things. What does this variety tell me?
I have worn skirts and shorts and pants and dresses.I have worn backpacks and babies. Since I went to a Newman Center in Florida while I was in college, I have almost certainly worn sandals and flip flops. I have worn sleeveless and long-sleeved shirts, T-shirts and sweatshirts, dress shoes and running shoes. On retreats I have attended night prayer in pajamas, I think. If not, I certainly would, given the opportunity.
I have worn a sari and felt uncomfortably “costumed,” although it was what everyone else was wearing.
I have forgotten shoes and gone barefoot and felt gratefully awestruck, as every inch of unaccustomed bare skin on my soles told me incessantly for an hour, “the place on which you are standing is holy ground!” That Holy Communion is one of the most memorable of my life.
I have worn a white robe and a wedding gown, and I will one day wear a shroud.
This Sunday, I will go to my closet to get ready, and I will look at the clothes hanging there, and very likely the ones stacked on the dresser that haven’t yet been put away, and perhaps I will ask myself, “What is fitting, what is appropriate, what is worthy attire to go up unto the house of the Lord?”
Very likely, if I am feeling honest with myself, I will answer, “None of it is!” By aesthetics, by ethics, by finitude, by distraction, because of my self-satisfaction – none of it is worthy.
So what will I wear to church?
I will wear my baptismal garment, which is not my own but was entrusted to the Church by Jesus and worn by my brothers and sisters through the ages.
I will wear the eschatological garment, washed in the blood of the Lamb, which doesn’t seem to fit me all that well yet.
I will wear the white robe I was loaned for my confirmation and first communion, and I will wear the touch of all the unknown others who wore it before me and since.
I will wear my wedding dress on my finger, as long as I don’t manage to lose it between now and then.
I will ask for humility of bearing, because the grace I’m wearing is a free gift offered to countless others. I will put charity over my eyes so that I see and take in others’ joy and pain, not their mistakes. Shoed or shoeless, I will ask for the awe and joy of the holy place – and if I am not granted it today, I will ask at least not to begrudge the awe and joy of others.
Some day, this body that is mine will fail me, and on that day I will again wear my baptismal garment and the dirt out of which I was made. My wardrobe at that point may go to a thrift shop, where it will be picked over and dismissed by the fashionable, which I am not!
But these borrowed garments – these things that I can wear to church, because they are holy – these I can share. While I live I can pass them along, if God grants it, to my children and to strangers. When I die I can leave them behind, as Adam is said to have left behind the garment of glory in the garden (a Syriac tradition). In the Syriac mystagogical tradition, Jesus brings that forgotten robe of glory to the Jordan, running after Adam with his lost garment. When he is baptized, Jesus leaves that robe of glory in the Jordan for all humanity to recover. It’s not mine, but I can borrow it for a time, and then I too can leave it behind when my time is done.
It is not in aesthetics that the baptismal garment is most distinct from the mundane way we think about clothing, but in essence, purpose, and in its expression of our relationship to one another. The baptismal garment is shared, it is spiritual, and it is invisible. If I have it on, I will certainly have put thought into preparing for mass, and I will be well dressed.