"The Garment of Love"
Dear brothers and sisters,
In a short story, the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy tells of a fierce sovereign who asked his priests and wisemen to show him God that he might be able to see him. The wise weren’t in a position to satisfy this desire of his. But then a shepherd, who’d just returned from the field, himself offered to take on the task of the priests and the experts. From him, the king learned that his eyes were not sufficient to see God. Then, however, he wished to at least know what God did. “To be able to respond to this question,” the shepherd told the sovereign, “we must swap our clothes.” With hesitation, but still pushed by curiosity for the discovery he awaited, the king consented; he gave his royal garb to the shepherd and then re-dressed himself in the simple outfit of the poor man. And then came the response: “This is that which God does.” In fact, the Son of God – true God from true God – left his divine splendor: “…emptying himself, he took the form of a slave and became like unto men; appearing in human form, he humbled himself… dying on a cross” (Phil 2:6). God has – as the Fathers put it – completed the sacrum commercium, the sacred exchange: he took on that which was ours, that we might receive that which was his, to become like unto God.
Saint Paul, speaking of what happens in Baptism, explicitly uses the image of clothing: “When you were baptized in Christ, you were clothed with Christ” (Gal 3:27). This completes itself in Baptism: we clothe ourselves in Christ, he gives us his garments and these are not external things. It means that we enter into an existential communion with Him, that his and our beings fuse, coming ever more closely together. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” – so Paul himself says in the Letter to the Galatians (2:2) describing the event of his baptism. Christ has donned our clothing: the suffering and joy of the human being, the hunger, thirst, tiredness, the hopes and disappointments, the fear of death, all of our anguishes until death. And he gave us his “clothing.” The Letter to the Galatians it speaks of this as a simple “fact” of baptism – the gift of being made new – Paul presents it in the in the Letter to the Ephesians as a permanent task: “You must rid yourselves of the old man of your prior conduct!... [and] clothe yourselves in the new man, created by God in justice and true holiness. Therefore, put away lies: each telling the truth to your neighbor; for we are members of each other. In anger, do not sin…” (Ep 4:22-26).
This theology of Baptism returns in a new way and with a new insistence in priestly ordination. As in Baptism was given an “exchange of clothing,” an exchange of destiny, a new existential communion with Christ, so too in the priesthood there is an exchange: in the administration of the Sacraments, the priest acts and speaks now “in persona Christi.” In the sacred mysteries he doesn’t represent himself and doesn’t speak to express himself, but speaks for the Other – for Christ. So in the Sacraments is made visible in a dramatic ay that which the priestly being signifies in general; that which we’ve expressed with our “Adsum – present” during the priestly consecration: I am here that you might make use of me. We place ourselves at the disposal of Him “who died for all, that they might live no longer for themselves…” (2 Cor 5:15). We place ourselves at the disposal of Christ meaning that we leave ourselves wrapped in his “for all”: that, in being with Him, we ourselves might be truly “for all.”
In persona Christi – in the moment of priestly ordination, the Church has made visible and tangible to us this reality of “new garments” also externally by means of which our beings are dressed anew with the liturgical vestments. This external sign wishes to make evident to us the interior event and the charge that, from it, comes to us: to put on Christ anew; to give ourselves to Him as he gave Himself to us. This event, this “reclothing with Christ,” is represented always anew in each Holy Mass as we don anew the liturgical vestments. To don them must be for us more than an external fact: it’s to enter always and ever new into the “yes” of our task – the “no longer I” of baptism that priestly ordination gives us in a new way and calls us to at the same time. The fact that we are at the altar, dressed in the liturgical robes, must make clearly visible to those present and to we ourselves that we are there “in the person of Another.” The priestly instruments, developed over the course of time, are a profound symbolic expression of that which priesthood signifies. I’d like then, dear brothers, to explain on this Holy Thursday the essence of the priestly ministry by interpreting the liturgical clothing that, clearly, for its part illustrates what it means to “put on Christ,” to speak and act in persona Christi.
The donning of the priestly vestments was, at one time, accompanied by prayers that would help us to understand better the singular elements of priestly ministry. Let us start with the amice. In the past – and still today in the monastic orders – this was first placed over the head, as a type of hood, so becoming a symbol of the discipling of the senses and of the necessary mindset for a proper celebration of the Holy Mass. My thoughts must not wander here and there amid the preoccupations and delays of my daily life; my senses must not be drawn away from that which here, inside the church, would casually wish to confine my eyes and ears. My heart must be docile in opening itself to the word of God and being called to the prayer of the Church, that my thoughts might receive its direction from the words of proclamation and prayer. And I must ensure that my heart be turned toward the Lord in our midst: this is what is meant by ars celebrandi – the proper way of celebrating. If I am with the Lord, then with my listening, speaking and acting I, too, attract the people toward communion with Him.
The prayer-texts that interpret the alb and stole both go in this same direction. They evoke the festive dress of the father given to the prodigal son who returned home ragged and dirty. When we come to the liturgy to act in the person of Christ we all realize how far from Him we are; this filth exists in our life. Only he can give us the festive garb, make us worthy of presiding at his table, of being in his service. So the prayers recall also the word of the Apocalypse according to which the 144,000 elect were clothed, not by their merits, worthy of God. The Apocalypse comments that these had washed their garments in the blood of the Lamb and that in this way they became as the light (cf Rev 7:14). From my youth I asked myself: when something is washed in blood, it surely doesn’t become white! The response is: the “blood of the Lamb” is the love of Christ crucified. It’s this love that makes our filthy garments clean; it makes true and illuminates our darkened spirit; that, notwithstanding all our darknesses, transforms we ourselves into “light in the Lord.” To wear the alb we must remember: He suffered, too, for me. And only because his love is much greater than my sins, I can represent him and be a witness to his light.
But with the vestment of Light that the Lord gave us in Baptism and, in a new way, in priestly ordination, we think too of the nuptial robe, of which He speaks to us in the parable of the [wedding] feast of God. In the homilies of St Gregory the Great I found a reflection worthy of note in this regard. Gregory distinguishes between the versions of this parable from Luke and that of Matthew. He is convinced that the Lukan parable speaks of the eschatological nuptial banquet, while – according to him – the version passed on by Matthew proceeds from the anticipation of this nuptial banquet in the liturgy and in the life of the Church. In Matthew – and only in Matthew – the king, in fact, comes to the crowded hall to see his guests. And here in this multitude he finds a guest without the nuptial garb, who’s then thrown out into the darkness. Gregory asks then: “But what kind of garb is he lacking? All those joined together in the Church have received the new clothing of baptism and of the faith; otherwise he would not be in the Church. What, then, is he missing? What nuptial garment must he also have?” The Pope responded: “The garment of love.” And so, among the guests to whom he gave a new garment, the clean dress of new birth, the king finds some not wearing the clothing colored by that double love toward God and toward their neighbor. “Under what conditions would we want to come to the feast of heaven, if not wearing the nuptial garb – that is, love, which alone makes us beautiful?” asks the Pope. A person without love is in darkness. The external darkness, of which the Gospel speaks, is only the reflection of the internal blindness of the heart.
Now that we’ve prepared ourselves for the celebration of the Holy Mass, we must ask ourselves if we wear this garment of love. Let us ask the Lord to remove every hostility from inside us, to rid us of each sense of self-sufficiency and to reclothe us truly with the garb of love, that we might be luminous people and not belong to the darkness.
Finally, a brief word regarding the chasuble. The traditional prayer for clothing oneself with the chasuble finds it to represent in essence the yoke of the Lord that is imposed on us as priests. And it recalls the words of Jesus that invite us to carry his yoke and learn from Him, who is “meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29). To carry the yoke of the Lord means above all to learn from him. To be always available to go to His school. From Him we must learn meekness and humility – the humility of God who shows himself in our human form. St Gregory Nazianzen once was asked why God would’ve wanted to become man. The most important part – and for me the most touching – of his response is: “God wished to give us an example of the meaning of obedience and wanted to show its measure by his own suffering, this invention of his love for us. In this way, He would be able to know directly, himself, that which we experience – how much is requested of us, how much indulgence we merit – taking our weakness into account in his suffering.” At times we might want to say to Jesus: Lord, your yoke isn’t light at all. It’s tremendously heavy in this world. But looking then at Him who carried everything – who took onto himself obedience, suffering, pain, all darkness, all our laments extinguish themselves. His yoke is that of loving with Him. And the more we love Him, and with Him become people who love, the lighter that seemingly heavy yoke becomes for us.
Let us pray that we might be helped to become together with Him people who love, to experience always and ever more how beautiful it is to carry his yoke. Amen.
PHOTOS: AP/Pier Paolo Cito