Saturday, October 15, 2011

11-10-09: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 25:6-10 / Psalm 23 / Philippians 4:12-14,19-20 / Matthew 22:1-14

Clothes make the man – so Mark Twain said. But, according to today’s gospel, clothes can be a man’s undoing as well.

How you dress, what’s considered appropriate or not in various situations, seems an issue that spans culture and geography. The thrust of today’s gospel about entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, metaphor-ed as a wedding banquet, makes the issue transcend even time. The invited guest sans tux – or whatever was the standard dress of ancient Israel – finds himself not only thrown out of the party but bound hand and foot, and pretty severely punished for his lack of decorum.

But dress, like all matters of taste, changes with whim and fancy. What’s acceptable to one generation is rejected by the next only to be found again by the one-after-next. I have a shirt I bought twenty years ago that I’m getting compliments on only now (cool shirt – very in, young people tell me).

Many older folks complain that younger folks, and even their parents, no longer dress for church (black churches and their congregants remain a significant exception). Some say priests should enforce a dress rule for Mass; others, that we should just be grateful that people come – no matter how badly they might dress. I suppose we could try to enforce a dress code at Mass, sort of like dining at a rich friend’s private club – the only places these days that seem to have dress codes (for men, jacket and tie). When you arrive without, you’re given a jacket (usually too big) and a tie (well-used and stained). If you’re not wearing a collared shirt you must undergo the further humiliation of wearing the tie around your bare neck, looking wholly ridiculous and wondering what might be the point. Surely, the code exists to bring people into conformity – not to single them out as buffoons. At least that’s what I was thinking when it happened to me. I’m not going back to that club – ever - even if I’m sporting tails and a top hat. If we made an example of all those we thought were not dressed appropriately for church, I suspect they’d make the same decision and vote with their feet.

Nostalgia plays a big part in the dress-for-church debate. Those of us who remember the 1950s might recall buying a new hat or suit for Easter Sunday Mass. Those “good old days” are slipping further and further away. It’s only really old folks who actually know what those snap hinges on the back of the pew in front of you were there for – keeping men’s hats from being sat upon in a crowded pew.

The argument for dressing for church usually hinges on this comparison: If you were about to meet the president, or for that matter the pope, you wouldn’t wear jeans and sneakers or shorts and a halter top; so why do you dress that way when you’re at church worshipping God Almighty? Problem with that argument, though, is the fact that most of us know deep down God couldn’t care less about our taste in fashion – or lack of it. If you were making a visit to church in the middle of, say, a Wednesday afternoon, all by yourself, shorts and flip-flops would be no problem. That’s because, on Sunday, we’re really not dressing for God but for each other, for the community we’re worshipping with. That’s why, in beach communities, even in the 50s, ready-for-the-beach-casual was totally acceptable: the community approved.

If we want people to be more reflective about how they dress while attending Mass we have to start by acknowledging the fact that we don’t dress for God – who, after all, wears no clothes and, at any rate, could see right through them. No, we dress for each other – that’s why, dressing for Mass could indeed be a very good thing. But it’s good because it reflects the importance of the community, the centrality of the Church as the People of God, in our act of worshipping. At Mass we never worship alone but always with the Church. Our choice of what to wear may indeed reflect how much respect, or lack of it, we have or don’t have for the Church as community; but, as for God, I’m sure he’s above all that – though, at times, I wonder if even he might not do a double take.

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