Worship the Lord in Holy Attire!
The dress of people attending Mass has been deteriorating for years, and now it seems, it has reached catastrophic proportions. Whose fault is it? We priests, if we say nothing.
Why Dress Up?
Why do we dress up for weddings, funerals, and (white collar) jobs? To honor those whom we love or those whom we serve. Love doesn't make honor and respect unnecessary, it fosters it. Most married couples know that when familiarity and comfort in a marriage crowd out honor and respect, trouble follows.
"But, Father, we like to be comfortable." Comfort is a good thing, but not at the expense of love and reverence. Comfort is for the self, love is for the other. We must make a choice.
In the past, dressing up often had an element of pleasing the other. Now pleasing the self has taken precedence. Our society has been called by one writer (Christopher Lasch,) the "Culture of Narcissism." Those who have unconsciously bought in to this philosophy will often bristle at the suggestion that they dress better for church.
Spirit vs. Exterior
"God is a spirit," some say. "He is interested in the spirit, not the externals." If that were the case we would not build magnificent churches, wear beautiful vestments at Mass, have uplifting music. Even poverty-living saints like John Vianney, and Francis of Assisi strove for fine vestments and linens at the altar. These are all ways of showing God we acknowledge his greatness, and of reminding ourselves of his greatness. Does it make sense for us to spend millions of dollars building glorious churches and then show up in blue jeans, sneakers and a tee shirt? When we dress this way, does not our body language say to God, to others, "The Mass is not so glorious, and neither is God"?
God: King or Friend?
"But God is not some exalted king. He is our friend," some say. Actually he is both. God is indeed king. After all, we celebrate the feast of "Christ the King" every year. The Psalms are full of praises for God in his glory. The very first request in the Our Father, "Hallowed by thy name," means "May we hold you, Father, in awe and reverence." Do we?
On the other hand, God calls us his sons and daughters. And, he has called us to great intimacy with him, a kind of marriage (Is 62:5). One of the great challenges of Christianity is to maintain these two extremes: The greatness, the awesomeness, the glory of God, and the intimacy to which he has called us. The two must always be in tension.
What Did God Say About It?
Does God really care what I wear to Mass? Well, He said He did. In the Scriptures we read: "Worship the Lord in holy attire" (1 Chr. 16:29, Ps's 29:2, 96:9). And, the Catholic Catechism teaches that our gestures and our clothing "ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest" in Holy Communion (para. 1387).
Turning Off the Youth?
Parents are sometimes reluctant to mention proper dress to their children, for fear of "turning them off." But, rather than tiptoe around the subject, why not teach children what the Mass is, and how holy it is, and what God says about "holy attire"? Many young people are willing to do great things for God, if we only invite them, and tell them why.
The Heart, Not the Garments!
Some argue, "Well, it says in the Bible, ‘rend your hearts, not your garments'" (Joel 2:12). Yes, and It also says, "It is love I want, not sacrifice" (Hos 6:6). Yet we still have the sacrifice of the Mass, and we still find the apostles rending their garments (Acts 14:14). God is not saying these external things are rejected, but that they are useless without an interior conversion. In fact, dressing properly for Mass, or even going to Mass, means nothing if we have no love in our hearts.
Not the Most Important Thing
Well, "Father," some may say, "dressing up for Mass is not the most important thing." No, it isn't. Loving God is the most important thing. But if you love someone, you should honor him with both your soul and your body.
God is Worth It!
To the homeless man who comes in from the street in his poor clothing, we say "Welcome." To the person who rushes over after work and hasn't had a chance to change, we say, "No problem." But, to the people who get dressed on a Sunday morning knowing they are coming to Mass, we say, please, please, please, "Worship the Lord in holy attire!" God is worth it!
Originally published in LayWitness Magazine July/Aug '03