“Say ‘Yes!’ to This Dress”
1 Christmas Yr A (Episcopal), Dec. 29, 2013
Isa. 61:10-62:3 and John 1:1-18
The Rev. Gillian R. Barr
Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Norfolk, VA
Have you ever gotten a piece of clothing as a Christmas present that you were so excited about that you couldn’t wait to wear it, and you strode out into the world in it feeling absolutely invincible? I know someone who is a huge fan of quarterback Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, formerly of the San Diego Chargers. One year he got an autographed Drew Brees jersey as a present and he wore it around the house for days, pretending to throw game-winning touchdown passes the length of the living room. And he was in his mid-50s and the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego!
The clothes we put on affect our mood, our self-confidence, how other people react to us, and how we interact with others. We get dressed up for interviews not just to impress the hiring committee but because it makes us feel more professional and competent. We “dress to impress,” we “dress for the job we want, not the job we have.” One of the fastest ways to dehumanize a person is to strip them of their distinctive clothing and put them in drab uniforms that make them stand out from the surrounding culture, and not in a good way–think of what we do to prisoners, and to new military recruits. Clothing can also be an equalizer in a positive way–this is why more and more public as well as private schools are moving towards uniforms–they allow everyone to be on the same fashion footing regardless of income or popularity, and students’ behavior is better in schools that require uniforms. When we are dressed well, in clothes that flatter us and that we like, we feel better about ourselves and project an air of confidence–whether in the boardroom or on a date. The word “fashion” is both a noun and a verb–in a very real way, our fashion fashions us.[i]
I don’t know if men notice this, but I think most women have: the dramatic difference in customer service you receive when you walk into an upscale clothing shop dressed in your Saturday-comfortable t-shirt and jeans versus when you walk in dressed in the sort of clothes the shop sells. You get much better customer service in the second instance. This interplay of fashion and psychology and status and success in part explains the enormous draw of television shows such as “What Not To Wear” and “Say Yes to the Dress!” These shows don’t just focus on the specific items of clothing–they also show how the “right” clothes can transform a person’s opinion of themselves and others’ reactions to them.
And lest you think clergy are above such worldly concerns, all of my friends watched the episode of “What Not to Wear” devoted to doing a makeover of an Episcopal priest, and there is a very popular blog called “Beauty Tips for Ministers.”[ii] The author of the blog sees her ministry as “Fighting ministerial frump, because we’re in the public eye, and God knows we need to look good!”
Of course it is easy for this awareness of how our attire can affect our image and confidence to get out of proportion, to the point where we believe our ultimate worth really is dependent on what we wear and in what size, and how flawless our complexion is. Hence the huge fashion and cosmetics and plastic surgery industries and many people’s huge credit card debts.
At Christmas we celebrate two major wardrobe changes. We celebrate God becoming human in Jesus, God taking on our very flesh and wearing it. As one contemporary preacher has said, “The Christ has put on the sweatshirt of humanity.” What a striking image![iii] Like any metaphor it can be pushed too far–for one thing, our humanity isn’t something that Christ later pulls off and tosses into the laundry bin when he’s tired of it.
A much more ancient theologian, Hildegard of Bingen, wrote in her commentary on today’s reading from the Gospel of John,
For at that moment [the creation of the world and humankind], God looked upon the flesh in which he himself would be clothed, and he cherished it in burning love.” God came to his own, for he had created the world and put on human flesh. So all creatures reveal him, just as a coin reveals the ruler who minted it. For God created the world, which he wished to prepare as a tabernacle for man; and, since he wanted to clothe himself in man, he fashioned him to his own image and likeness. Therefore, all things were his own.[iv]
In Jesus God puts on human flesh, and never takes it off, but carries it into the heart of God for all eternity. And in clothing himself with our humanity and limitations, he in turn clothes us with divinity and majesty. It is the central paradox of the incarnation: God’s coming in messy flesh gives us beauty. Jesus puts on our flesh so that we can put on his glory.
Episcopal priest and author Lauren Winner points out how often images of clothing and being clothed are used in scripture. In particular the Pauline epistles describe how in baptism we put on Christ as a garment, that we are clothed in Christ. This language is common in Galatians, Romans, and Colossians. Being clothed in Christ at baptism is the origin of the fancy white baptismal garments worn by babies and of the white vestments worn by worship leaders.
And it is the image of today’s reading from Isaiah, where salvation is described as being clothed in the radiance and joy of a bride or a groom. As one translation has it,
“I will sing for joy in God, I will explode in praise from deep in my soul! He dressed me up in a suit of salvation; he outfitted me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom who puts on a tuxedo and a bride a jeweled tiara. “[v]
I would like you to use your imaginations for a minute. Imagine the way you feel deep inside yourself when you are dressed in something you love–whether it is your killer business suit, or the cute outfit that always makes your beloved smile, or the workout clothes that make you feel like the next Olympic gold medalist. Don’t focus on the particular outfit, but rather on how you feel when you wear it. Imagine yourself wearing it and feeling like you own the world. Just bask in that feeling for a few moments.
The gift we are given at Christmas is that our very soul is clothed in just that outfit. And this is one dress we want to say “YES!” to! For,
“to all who received him . . . he gave power to become children of God . . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth . . . . From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. ” (John 1:12 and vf.)
And so we go into the world today singing with Isaiah,
“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
[i] The Rev. Lauren Winner, in her Convocation Address at Virginia Theological Seminary, October 2011.
[iii] Quoted in Mike Graves, “On Having a Word from God,” sermon published in Journal for Preachers, vol. 27 no. 1, Advent 2003. Accessed on 12/28/13 at http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a6h&AN=ATLA0001438655&site=ehost-live
[iv] Selections from Hildegard of Bingen, Commentary on the Johannine Prologue, trans. Barbara Newman. Theology Today, vol. 60, 2003: pages 23 and 32, altered slightly for clarity.
[v] Isa. 61: 10-12 , from The Message by Eugene Peterson.