Second-hand Robes, or: Jesus, Justin and Jorge Maria Get Dressed

[From a sermon for Palm Sunday 2013 for the Canterbury Fellowship at the Chapel of Trinity College]

In the last week we have seen the installations of new leaders for the Roman Catholic Church and for the Anglican Communion. Much attention has been paid to the ceremonial, to the words spoken, to the politics involved. But every Anglican knows the really important question in either case was this: what did he wear?

Clothes do matter. It is a common factor to these and many other rituals that we clothe those whose status changes differently from before. Those who sniff at the wearing of odd garments for such special occasions usually haven't considered that brides, judges, or footballers all dress in ways that would otherwise look strange - we live by signs and symbols, and not all symbols are words.

Pope Francis' simplicity, including of dress, has already been compared favourably by some with the alleged predilection of his predecessor for Prada shoes - a myth, as it turned out. Archbishop Welby's robes at his installation were second-hand, passed down from a former bishop who had been one of his teachers, and refurbished. So as each of these new leaders has come to a new place and a new episcopal office, the responsibilities placed on their shoulders are reflected not just in special garb, but in how they wear it.

In the two Gospels that are part of today's liturgy (Luke 19:28-40; Luke 23:1-49) Jesus also comes to the place where he has been called to a new kind of ministry, and he too enters with a procession. In this case clothes are cast off at first, placed first not on his shoulders but over a colt and on the road itself. Like Justin Welby at his installation, Jesus is questioned about the significance of his ministry and identity. Eventually, he too is clothed in an "elegant robe".

But of course between the people casting their cloaks to the ground and Jesus being clad in his new garb, things have changed. This new clothing is not intended as a sign of glory but is a mocking assessment of the kingship that Jesus has claimed or is perceived to have claimed. 

Yet the most striking act of clothing Jesus undergoes in his passion is actually that of being un-clothed, stripped, not only of all pretension or ornament but of comfort, of dignity itself. The loincloth that artistic depictions generally allow the crucified Jesus is probably as real as the former Pope's Prada shoes - a fancy for our needs, not his. In fact Jesus was displayed naked on the cross as an unadorned object of shame. He will only be clothed again in the shroud of his entombment.

In the face of this stripping at the centre of what comes to constitute Christian faith, some might cast their minds back to the panoply of those recent liturgical events with questions about its appropriateness for the service of this naked Galilean. These may be fair questions. But they should not be posed merely to those whose pomp is a little greater than our own, at least on one day or another. It is posed to us as well.

In his letter to the Galatians St Paul reminds his readers that "as many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Gal 3:27). If we were inclined to forget today's Gospel and what it means to be clothed with Christ, Paul to the Romans writes "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" (Rom 6:3).

Whether or not Paul and the Galatians did so, we know that literal stripping and re-clothing of the newly-baptized was common soon after that time in the ancient Church. Candidates for baptism were stripped as Jesus had been stripped, and went into the waters of baptism without comfort or dignity, like Jesus. Perhaps none of us here underwent such a literal emulation of Jesus in our own baptism, but we have all nonetheless entered into what he did.

There are remnants of this ceremonial re-clothing in those babies' baptismal gowns sometimes passed down through families across generations. But the robes that Christian ministers wear in the liturgy are also, first and foremost, those new white garments gained in baptism. Only some of us here today wear them , but our garb symbolises what pertains to us all.

So too, underneath gold and silk and lace in the great ceremonies of recent days, the servants of God Justin and Jorge Mario were clothed in the same white garment, the alb, that reflects their having been baptised into his death and taking Christ for second-hand clothes. How each of those new prelates will wear their offices remains to be seen; but the question is also for each of us. Will we take off our own cloaks and cast them before Jesus as he arrives; are we willing to be stripped of pretense, and to accept the strange gift of being clothed with him?


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