Worship in the Right Clothes

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Many years ago when I was a teenager, I was asked by a friend if I would be interested in helping him film a wedding. He had a video production business and needed a second camera operator for the day, and even though I had no real experience, I guess he assumed I caught on to things quickly.

Or perhaps he just needed a warm body to push the big red “record” button. You can probably safely assume which option I prefer to go with.

The wedding was set to take place at this small chapel in a state park, or at least someplace secluded. I dutifully attired myself appropriately (or at least as appropriately as my teenage self was capable of) and was ready for a fun day of filming.

I was a bit taken back when I saw the wedding party arrive for the rehearsal, in that they were almost all dressed in their normal casual clothes. I thought that perhaps this was supposed to be a casual wedding or something like that, and, having myself brought a change of clothes, decided it would be fine if I changed into something more casual.

My boss was out doing other things, and I thought nothing of it. However, immediately after seeing me, he said (kindly, albeit directly) that I really needed to go change back into my wedding clothes now.

I found myself confused later, since evidently all the people in the wedding party had actually changed into their wedding clothes as well (imagine that!) and were properly attired for the ceremony. For some reason my teenage self didn’t take this possibility into account. Instead, I was far more concerned about my own comfort, as I hated my dress clothes and it was the middle of summer. However, had my boss not caught me before the ceremony, I would have stood out like a sore thumb, perhaps comfortable in my casual clothes, but no doubt feeling the stares of those gathered, wondering why the film crew could be so disrespectful during such an occasion.

I haven’t thought about this episode in years (and now cannot do so without blushing at my stupidity), only remembering it after hearing about a similar event in the Gospel reading recently. I’ve always not had the greatest fashion sense, nor have I always embraced attiring appropriately for certain occasions, especially if it involves “dress” clothes. But this parable put into mind its application beyond simply what I wear, bringing to bear the question: what does it mean to wear the right clothes?

In Matthew 22, Jesus tells the parable in which a king invites people to a wedding banquet for his son, but they refuse. As things escalate, they eventually murder some of his servants and in response he destroys them. However, since the banquet is still to take place, he has his servants bring in anyone they can find, both good and bad alike, until the hall is filled with guests.

The story then seemingly takes a weird turn when the king is among the guests and notices a man (who was brought in with this batch of guests) who was not attired appropriately; he was not wearing wedding clothes:

But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless.

(Matthew 22:11-12)

The parable ends with the king having this guest forcibly removed from the feast, and Jesus punctuates the parable with this meaning:

“For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

(Matthew 22:14)

This final point has always struck me as curious, for even though the man was gratuitously invited to the wedding feast, he was also expected to be properly attired. This seeming incongruity also seems to have perplexed some modern commentators, so that it is often speculated (without any really substantiation) that it was the custom of the time to provide wedding garments, thus solving the incongruity. This is at least the way in which I have often heard it exegeted, the resolution being that the man who was thrown out was so prideful or ungrateful or whatever that he wouldn’t even make use of what was given him.

And that is perhaps not an altogether too unreasonable reading of this parable, except that it doesn’t really fit the schema that Matthew is providing in the series of parables that Jesus taught. Rather, it occurs in the midst of parables which not so subtly note the rejection by God’s people (specifically the chief priests and Pharisees) of the one whom God sent, and the subsequent opening of the kingdom of heaven to the Gentiles.

This idea occurs in the parable of the two sons and in the parable of the tenants, and the groups under scrutiny, Matthew tells us, have no difficulty in understanding that the parables are directed at them. In fact, after the wedding feast parable they decide they’ve had enough and look for ways to trap him and either invalidate his authority or get him in trouble with the Roman authorities.

But even further, this sort of interpretation needn’t even be supposed, as it tends to miss the meaning Jesus is getting at in the summation. The idea here is that the invitation is made to many, but only the few are actually chosen. To show up without wedding clothes to a wedding one has been invited to says less about the invitation and more about the invitee.

St. Augustine teases out some of the implications of this passage in his Sermon 40, trying to draw distinctions between those who are invited and those who are called. Taking place within the heart of the Donatist controversy, St. Augustine sees the invitation for the “good and bad alike” as a type of those within the church, much like he would draw out of the parable of the wheat and the chaff. In considering what constitutes the wedding garment, he runs the gamut:

  • Goodness? (no, only God is good)
  • The sacraments? (no, not everyone baptized attains unto God)
  • Fasting? (no, the wicked often fast)
  • Miracles? (no, the wicked can perform miracles)
  • Certain spiritual gifts? (no, not all have the same gifts)
  • Faith? (no, even the demons have faith)

He notices in the text (perhaps giving some the images more weight than necessary) that the servants’ only duty was to gather in the guests, not to notice whether they were properly attired or not. It was only the king who noticed, and from this St. Augustine concludes that Jesus is referring to the heart of the man, rather than his outward appearance. He says:

The garment that was looked for is in the heart, not on the body; for had it been put on externally, it could not have been concealed even from the servants.

(St. Augustine, Sermon 40)

The point he is trying to make (aside from the polemics against the Donatists implicit here) is that Jesus’ punctuation of this passage summarizes this interpretation; after all, in the parable only one was ejected from the feast, whereas Jesus implicitly describes this state as applicable to “the many,” given that only “the few” are chosen. From this St. Augustine reasons that the man here describes a state, and thus the wedding clothes (or lack thereof) refer in some way to that state.

He then gives elaborates on what the wedding clothes are:

What is that wedding garment then? This is the wedding garment: “Now the end of the commandment, says the Apostle, is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned. This is the wedding garment.”

(ibid.)

And further:

So then, have faith with love. This is the wedding garment. You who love Christ, love one another, love your friends, love your enemies.

(ibid.)

For St. Augustine, to have a faith without love- or even to have the wrong kind of love- is to approach God in the wrong clothes. Like someone who attends a wedding improperly attired, so to be without love is to treat God with contempt.

In my opening story, I noted how the reason I changed clothes was entirely about me; I didn’t like those kinds of clothes, I thought they were uncomfortable, I wanted to dress as I wanted or as my comfort dictated, and was willing to use whatever mistaken notions I could to justify that choice.

However, in situations where we do dress up and are expected to, there is a certain submission required. To be sure, in the mundane world it is largely based on social conventions or customs, but even so there is a sense of respect offered, a sense in which how we dress and comport ourselves demonstrates that we are taking something seriously. To not do so can often indicate something askew within us, or, after time, can itself create that very same skew.

I mentioned how I’ve never been one who likes to dress up. But, naturally, I did so for my wedding. There is probably some place inside of me that would have preferred to wear a kilt instead of a tux, but Megan quickly put to a stop that direction (and likely for the best!)

In writing this I was doing a brief thought experiment in relation to that. Let’s say that on the day of the wedding I up and decided to just wear some jeans and a tee-shirt for the ceremony. I know that Megan put a lot of effort, time and planning into the wedding; what, exactly, would I have been saying with how I adorned myself for that moment? Excepting any extreme extenuating circumstances, I would have been saying that all of that planning, effort, etc., meant nothing to me. I would have, in fact, been treating it with contempt, even if in some kind of invincible ignorance I didn’t realize it.

And if I made a habit of that (beyond simply clothes), would not the way I comported myself form the essence of how I approach the relationship? If I treated every thing so self-centeredly and casually, what would that say about the way I was adorning myself on the inside?

In many ways I find some corollaries in the way we approach worship and liturgy. For much of my life I’ve attended worship services or liturgies that were- to one extent or another- best characterized as casual. The church is built to not look like a church. Amenities are provided to make one feel at home or, worse, that dreaded state of being “comfortable.” Music and message were tailored to be accessible, understandable, relevant (ick) and generally unobjectionable. The atmosphere is meant to encourage a feeling of casualness, and often times that exact language is intentionally used to describe the venue or environment; something along the lines of “worship in a casual environment.”

In the inverse of a wedding, not only is one not expected to dress up, but one would almost always feel out of place to do so.

I am admittedly weaving in and out of this metaphor, and my point is not to make some argument in favor of certain attire for worship. That being said, the Scriptures say that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks, and I wonder, if in the meaning of this parable, one mightn’t also notice that the ways in which we comport ourselves externally can influence how we dress ourselves internally?

In respect to the ways in which we worship and the manner in which we conduct our liturgies, is it perhaps not right to consider how these correspond to our spiritual adornment? I would not presume upon any one’s motives, but can only look into my own heart. If the liturgy or worship is conducted in a casual manner, what does that form in me in my approach to God?

We are not only minds; the things we do with our bodies affect not only how we think but also what we believe. The old Latin maxim has it as lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of belief. In other words, the manner in which we pray (i.e., worship, liturgical action, etc.) forms the manner in which we believe and the content of that belief. Our forms of liturgy become, as it were, the vestments with which we adorn ourselves when we come before God in worship.

The reasons for this are manifold, but also have a practical bearing. After all, the liturgies or worship services we attend provide a great deal of the content we learn about God, about faith, about the moral life, about the Christian life, and a host of other things. Very few (if any of us) live some insular existence where nothing external to us brings anything to bear upon what we think or believe. The communal aspect of worship can also bring the force of peer pressure to bear, for better or for worse. It is not necessarily determinative, but there is no denying the influence it has on us, of which we are likely largely unaware.

The way we worship therefore has a lot to say about what we think about God. If we worship in a casual manner, with liturgies designed to mimic as much as possible the world outside of the liturgy, what exactly are we saying about how we approach God. Have we not simply made worshiping God another hour of another day of another week? We sing a lot of the same kinds of songs (sometimes, if we are trendy enough, even the same songs!) as we do in our everyday casual lives. We fixate on the same trivialities in our obsessions with pour-over coffee or putting great looking shots on social media or talking about many of the same things in many of the same ways. We begin to treat God as casually as every other part of our lives, until God actually becomes just another part of our lives.

The liturgy turns from a wedding feast into just another party, and all too often we are more than happy to dress appropriately.

Jesus said that the Father desires worshippers who would worship in Spirit and in truth, and St. Paul elaborates on this by noting that this sort of worship is an act of self-immolation, of offering oneself as a living sacrifice. It likely needs not be noticed that sacrifice can never be a casual thing. Sacrifice is in fact the core component of worship, religion and liturgical action. It forms the content and character of worship altogether. It has a decidedly non-casual essence to it, as its ultimate object is transcendent, is the divine itself.

This understanding of worship requires of us that we approach God with all the gravity that coming into the presence of utter holiness and unapproachable light deserves. As St. Augustine notes, we need to adorn ourselves for the wedding feast with charity, and with the right kind of charity no less. God’s mercy towards us is, according to St. Paul, the principal motivation for our act of self-sacrifice in worship. God in Jesus gave up everything for us, and we are told elsewhere to clothe ourselves with the same attitude of humility, and to adorn ourselves with charity which completes the ensemble.

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By deviantmonk

Jason Watson

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