LESSONS FROM LITURGY: Lent: Take Off Those Old Clothes
Father Thomas Pressley
/ Categories: Opinion, Commentary

LESSONS FROM LITURGY: Lent: Take Off Those Old Clothes

By Father Thomas Pressley

Our clothing tells the stories of our lives. Shirts from family reunions, high school bands, sports teams, and the resale shop stir our memories and declare to the world who we are and whence we came.  Whether deliberately or accidentally, our clothes become outward signs to the world of the ways we wish to label ourselves.

Signs and symbols have always played a significant role in the Church and her liturgy. In the early Church, one of the key signs in the baptismal liturgy concerned clothes, or lack thereof.  The liturgy not only teaches us the faith and gives us a structure for divine worship, but also by its nature conforms us to Jesus Christ.

At the dawn of creation, Adam and Eve strolled through paradise naked and not ashamed. But after falling into sin through disobedience, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked,” so they “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Gen 3:7). Before the Lord exiled them from their earthly paradise, he made “garments of skins” to clothe the unhappy couple (Gen 3:21).  

The early Church thus saw clothes as a sign of man’s original sin, a tangible symbol of his degraded state.  This new state came with the unfortunate side effect of mortality, a reality of which the skins of dead animals were a constant reminder.  To undo the sin of Adam, a new Adam needed to strip off these garments of sadness and death and replace them with a robe of splendor and new life.  Enter our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus, through his perfect obedience, undid Adam’s act of disobedience. With his death, he paid the price of Adam’s sin and restored man’s proper relationship with God and creation.  When the Romans stripped him of his garments at the foot of the cross, they also stripped away the sign of humanity’s corruption and mortality.  Jesus hung naked on the cross, captive and shamed in the eyes of man but free and unashamed before God.

In the fourth-century Church in Jerusalem and Antioch, St. Cyril of Jerusalem and Theodore of Mopsuestia respectively wrote about the sign of clothing in baptism.  Upon arriving in the baptistry, the catechumen would strip his clothing, a sign signifying his leaving behind the degraded state and slavery to sin experienced in the exile from Eden and his return to the state of innocence before God. In baptism, the catechumen joined Jesus on the cross, naked and unashamed before the Lord.  

But God does not leave us naked; he does not want us to return to an earthly paradise.  He has greater plans for us.

Cyril and Theodore explain how the newly-minted Christian would be clothed in a white robe, the sign of his new innocence, purity, and invitation to glory.  On Mount Tabor, Jesus was transfigured before his apostles; his garments “became white as light” as a glimpse of his glory was revealed (Mt 17:2). The baptized share in Christ’s suffering and death; they also share in his resurrected glory.  The visible action of stripping the old and vesting in the new illustrated the invisible action of the Holy Spirit, replacing the corruptibility of sinful nature with his own incorruptible grace.  The white robe was a sign of how, freed from sin, Jesus wraps us in his own light, a foretaste of eternal life in heaven.

St. Paul’s words now ring with a new tone: “put off the old man . . . and put on the new man” (Eph 4:22-24).  

One simple and important way of embracing the baptismal sign of clothing year round is to dress up for Mass.  When we approach the Lord in the Holy Eucharist, we ought to dress like someone coming to meet the King who offers eternal life.

During the 40 days of Lent, Christians walk with the Israelites in the wilderness seeking the Promised Land, journey with Elijah to Mount Horeb, and fast with Christ in the desert.  Lent is also the time of final preparation for the catechumens before they receive baptism at Easter and incorporation into the Mystical Body of Christ.  

As we participate in this holy time, we do well to strip away whatever filthy garments of sin we still wear.  Pride, lust, gossip, grudges — these are garments of the old man.  Instead put on the glories of Christ — virtue and purity, love and patience and forgiveness. By wearing these, the world will truly see who we are and whence we come.

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