June 30, 2005
Canterbury Tales, the prioress flaunts a gold brooch. The nun’s jewelry is a glaring social statement. In her day, only the nobility and knights of the highest rank had the privilege of wearing gold. Obviously, she came from a noble family. Her use of French and her table manners give us the portrait of a woman who still clings to her past. This is but one example of Chaucer’s technique. In the descriptions of the pilgrims, Chaucer sometimes points out just one piece of clothing. The way people dress indicate their social position or, perhaps, the status they wish they had.
In ancient Rome, clothes were designed to make a statement about social status. A Roman citizen wore a toga. A senator, a tunic with broad stripes. A married woman wore a stola. The emperor, a laurel wreath on his head. In the United States, democracy had its effect on clothes. With a large majority of the population falling into the middle class, it became less and less attractive to flaunt one’s status. In fact, as unoriginal as it might sound, for almost two hundred years, men who work in the business world have worn the same uniform—the business suit.
Then came the 60’s. Vietnam. The Civil Rights Movement. Woodstock. There was a profound revolution in the way people thought about authority and custom and social convention. Youth. Exuberance. Innovation. Freedom. The ground beneath us was shaken. And dress code suffered an inevitable fallout. For the most part, people still honor black tie affairs, formal weddings and funerals with appropriate dress. And some of the finest restaurants are able to require a jacket and tie for men. But we have become more causal, less conventional and more independent in attire.
Forty years ago, people wore their Sunday best to Church. And there are still some communities -- the Black community stands out—where people who come to worship God care intensely about the way they dress. But, for the most part, this is a faded memory. A picture from our grandparents’ day. In the Scriptures, there are rules about dress during worship. And the principle behind these rules has not changed with the fashion of the day.
In the Old Testament, the priests were told to approach the place of worship in a proper manner. “
Neither shall you go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not discovered …”(Ex. 20:26)
. They were further directed how to dress. They were to put on “
… linen breeches to cover their nakedness; from the loins even to the thighs they shall reach..”. (Ex. 28:42). The rules were sober, practical and pointed. Egyptian priests wore only a loincloth when they performed cult. Not so in God’s house. When Aaron and his sons ministered to the Lord, they were to dress in a way that they could ascend the stone steps of the altar to offer sacrifice without exposing themselves. The priests had to wear underwear! Decency matters. Modesty counts.
So too in the New Testament. The particular rules are different. But it is the same principle. Paul advises women to be careful not to disregard the standards of modesty of their day (1 Cor 11:2-16). Even more detailed directions are given in the letter to Paul’s co-worker Timothy. “In like manner also, I direct that women are to wear suitable clothes and to be dressed quietly and modestly without braided hair or gold, or pearls, or costly array…" (I Timothy 2:8-10).
Some may rightly point out that what is on the inside counts more. No argument. In fact, Scripture does look at dress or clothing as symbolic of one’s inner life of goodness. A mantle of praise (Is. 61:3). The belt of truth. The breastplate of righteousness (Eph. 6:14). Paul even talks about shoes as a sign of our readiness to spread the gospel (Eph 6:15). Our lives are indeed the virtues we weave and wear before God, especially when we come to worship. But, as Pope Pius XII remarked on November 8, 1957, “It might be said that society speaks through the clothing it wears…” One truly wonders what some people are saying by the way they come dressed to Church.
The particulars in which Scriptures speak about proper attire have changed. But the principle remains true today as the day Moses came down the mountain and explained the worship of Israel. The care in the way we dress is as important today as the day Paul wrote to the Christians of the first century.
No one considers it overbearing or out of place for a business to require its employees to conform to a dress code. Why then should we be afraid to say that that neatness, decency and modesty in dress, wearing our best according to our means, is the proper attire for Church? Is this not a way to honor the holiness of God? Recently, an American businessman was visiting Israel. An Israeli woman who works in real estate told him that her dress code did not allow her to wear pants in Jerusalem. He was surprised and inquired why. She pointed to the ancient walls of the city and said, “God dwells there!” Have we forgotten that the Church is God’s house?