|Then [Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" (Luke 9:20)|
Fr. Charles Irvin
Diocese of Lansing
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They come here all clothed in white, many times wearing long white garments passed down through family generations, white baptismal garments that dress up baby boys and baby girls with no gender distinction except for their names. For as we just heard in St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians: For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And so they come to be baptized, to put on Christ, to be clothed in Christ. Their families, too, parents, godparents, relatives, and friends come dressed in their Sunday finest.
Perhaps you have noticed, as have I, that Black folks come to their churches dressed in their Sunday finest. So too, people from other cultures, notably Africans and Asians. They come dressed in their finest not to show off but rather to give honor to Christ, to give notice that they, too, are clothed in Christ. It’s a privilege, not a duty; it’s a gift, not an obligation. They come dressed in their best for the best.
Guests at weddings show their respects by wearing their finest. Brides, of course, clothe themselves to appropriately display their new identity. It’s not a fashion show – nor should it be. It’s a sign, a sign of recognition, the beginning of a new belonging to a new family, the family that they and their bridegrooms are about to bring into our world. And so they come dressed in their best.
And finally, at the end, they come to church again, borne this time in caskets, caskets that are covered with a white garment, a pall, to proclaim that now, clothed in Christ, they are entering into the final new life, eternal life, life clothed in Christ as He brings them home to God our Father in heaven.
Our culture has turned clothes into a fashion industry, an industry that uses fashion to show off, to distinguish, to make statements about who is “in” and who is “out.” Equality is not tolerated in the world of fashion where only superiority and inferiority are tolerated. It is status that is exalted while equality is scorned. But if we are clothed with the best does that make us better than the rest? It is, after all, only clothing, pieces of fabric artfully stitched so as to reveal the curves in the human body. But the clothing that really matters is our covering of others with our caring, compassion, and love.
When it comes to baptism and entrance into the Christian family status is unimportant. One’s rank in society doesn’t matter when one processes to God’s altar. The symbols of status, power, and wealth are meaningless when it comes to being clothed in Christ. God loves each one of us with all of His love. In God’s eyes, the nuns who serve the pope in his Vatican apartments are as important as the most exalted of the princely Cardinals. Outside in St. Peter’s square a street sweeper with his straw broom stands before God with the same status and rank as the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State.
St. Paul had to press that idea upon St. Peter and the early Apostles of Christ. St. Paul championed the Gentiles, the non-Jews, insisting that they, too, along with the first disciples of Christ, were baptized in the Holy Spirit and that because of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection they were the recipients of God’s gifts and love as Christ’s brothers and sisters. They were in the family just as much as anyone else and were entitled to the same inheritance. In Christ there is no distinction between Jew and Greek.
Privilege based on status meant nothing in the eyes of the dying Christ who, on His Cross, looked out upon us all and saw us all with the same loving eyes. Self-aggrandizement in someone who stands at the foot of the Cross is absurd. When you look at the crucifix here in this church you see the naked and powerless humanity that is Christ’s and you see it while standing with others in only one shared status, the status of a being loved sinner. No matter how we clothe ourselves with our own self-satisfied opinions about ourselves, we have, in reality, only one shared status — that of being a loved sinner.
So in our private fancies, how do we dress ourselves up? With what jewels of power, privilege, and prestige do we bedeck ourselves? In what ways do we consider ourselves to be “better” than others? The remedy needed, the spiritual medicine we must swallow, is to die to self. To be sure, we have our differences. We are created equal but not the same. We have our unique identities. Being Christian doesn’t cause our human differences to disappear and vanish. Baptism, however, and sharing in all of Christ’s Sacraments make our differences irrelevant and without meaning when it comes to living together in the life of God given us in Jesus Christ.
The significance of our Holy Communion is that our union in Christ is found in simple, ordinary bread and in common — not vintage — wine. He was born among us in simplicity and powerlessness; He died among us stripped of the trappings of prestige and in utter powerlessness, clothed only with His faith in His Father’s love. If anyone wishes to come after me, declared Jesus, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of His identity. If we identify ourselves by the clothes we wear then we cheaply sell ourselves short. If we cover ourselves with outer garments without girding our souls with strength of character, then we are weak. But if we are clothed in the power of the Christ who rose victorious over sin and death, then we have power to face the world of chaos that surrounds us. We have strength and stability in a very unstable world where those who are weak think they can control others only through dominance and force.
Those who are insecure use the trappings of power and dominance in order to attempt to control those around them. It is the cowardly who worship brute force. They have sold their souls in order to acquire the marks of superiority and status. Those who have put their souls in the hands of Christ, however, stand secure in the certainty of Christ’s victory over all that is phony, fraudulent, self-aggrandizing and evil in our world.
When you were baptized, clothed as you were in your baptismal white, you put on Christ. When you die you will once again be covered with the white funeral pall as you make your journey into the next life. May you live all the days between your baptism and your burial clothed in the love of Christ, all the while covering others with your caring compassion, your hope, your faith, and your love for all of God’s children. Remember always that God loves each one of us with all His love, and that is the only status symbol we can wear that matters.