Take off your robe of mourning and misery: Sunday reflection

Francesco Granacci/Wikimedia Commons.

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 3:1–6:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:

A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Several years back, I had a moment of epiphany about preparation for Mass. By this time, I had been a Eucharistic minister (technically an “extraordinary minister of Holy Communion”) for a couple of years, but that task had a regular schedule. EMs, as we called ourselves, had a particular assignment each month. When our Mass came up, we were expected to be presentable for Mass, ie, not come to church in saggy clothes, T-shirts, shorts, etc.

Of course, we really shouldn’t be doing that anyway, but I hadn’t ever really thought that through until I got drafted when a few EMs didn’t make it. I had gone to Mass in casual clothes, and by this time we were either in late fall or had actually begun Advent. I had chosen an old, worn flannel shirt with a sloppy-necked T-shirt under it (layer up in Minnesota!) and faded black jeans that were at least one size too big by that point.

When the other EMs saw me in church, they asked me to help out. I tried to demur based on my poor choice of clothing, but I got drafted anyway … and felt like a horse’s patoot the entire time. In fact, I had even less excuse than one might grant, since I had almost the same experience in my corporate working environment a few years earlier, when I got dragged to a regional headquarters on almost no notice to meet with a customer.

When we talk about advent, we talk about preparation. Advent is a short season of anticipation and readiness in our liturgical calendar, but in a larger sense, our entire lives are an Advent, a formation to the Gospel, and a preparation in every sense. And for what are we preparing? For the coming of our Savior, who will lead us to the Lord’s presence for all eternity.

That should lead us to consider a change of clothes for Mass, at least. Later after this embarrassing moment, I had the opportunity to read Coming Soon, a brilliant and often funny book by Michael Barber that focuses on the connection between Revelation and the Mass itself. (Scott Hahn also does this in The Lamb’s Supper, an equally excellent analysis. Read both of them.) In essence, each Mass is its own Advent as we connect to the wedding feast of the Lamb, in which we are collectively the bride for the Lord as we enter into the eternal Trinitarian life. We dress up for weddings — most of the time, anyway. Why shouldn’t we dress up for our own?

In our liturgical Advent season, we focus on preparation to welcome the Lord into our hearts. We are called to make straight His path, not on any particular road but on the path to our hearts. We can’t just allow ourselves to be surprised at His arrival, just as we cannot allow ourselves to be unprepared for our own arrival at His judgment.

Furthermore, we are called to joy in these preparations, not dread or fear. In our first reading from Baruch as well as in our responsorial psalm, we are exhorted to remember that the Lord has already won our freedom for us. “The Lord has done great things for us,” we sing today from Psalm 126. “we are filled with joy.” Baruch even talks about dressing up for the occasion, at least figuratively:

Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever: wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name. For God will show all the earth your splendor: you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship. Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God.

Are flannels and old jeans the equivalent of “robe[s] of mourning and misery”? Not exactly, but they are also not a fashion statement of rejoicing and happy anticipation either.

Our form of dress doesn’t matter all that much to our salvation, of course, except perhaps as a signal of the effort we put into preparation — and the recognition of the event for which we are preparing. Jesus offered several parables about the dangers of waiting until it was too late to begin forming one’s self to the will of the Lord. He also warned that our judgment and that of the world may come with signs and portents, but that to rely solely on those as a signal to get started on preparation was folly.

It is not enough to know the Lord, or even to believe that He will come again. We need to love the Lord and feel the joy of the Holy Spirit in our hearts at that prospect, and make straight His path to us in the way we live our lives in His Gospel. That preparation will only help to multiply the joy we feel when He arrives, which is but a foretaste of the joy we will have in Heaven with the Lord.

Maybe then we can wear flannel shirts, too. They’re pretty darned comfy, but I’ll skip wearing them to weddings from now on. Especially my own.

The front-page image is a detail from “Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness” by Francesco Granacci, c. 1506-7. On display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.