The Word Among Us

May 2008 Issue

Clothed with the Garment of Salvation

We have a wonderful dignity in Christ.

Clothed with the Garment of Salvation: We have a wonderful dignity in Christ.

I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul. For he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice. (Isaiah 61:10). Dazzling evening gowns can cost thousands of dollars. Fancy shoes alone can cost a few hundred dollars.

In the less expensive realm, we all like wearing good clothing and looking our best. Being dressed well tends to make us feel good about ourselves. Conversely, being dressed the wrong way can be very embarrassing. We feel out of place, we fear rejection, and we wish we could change our clothes right away.

We can see this same kind of thinking when it comes to our spiritual lives as well. The image of clothing shows up a number of times in the Bible, often used as an outer reflection of people’s inner states. Reflecting on the state of the people of Israel, for example, the Book of Isaiah says, “All our good deeds are like polluted rags” (Isaiah 64:5). Even in the Book of Revelation, St. John describes the church glorified as a “bride” dressed in a “bright, clean linen garment,” which “represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones” (Revelation 19:7-8).

Clearly, our heavenly Father wants to see us clothed in holiness and righteousness. He wants to see us wearing these clothes every day—not only because it pleases him so much, and not only because it brings us joy as well, but also because our spiritual “clothing” can have a great effect on the people around us.

So this month, we want to look at what it means to follow the advice of Scripture: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:14). So let’s go get dressed!

The Garment of Salvation. Ancient Israel had an annual tradition called the “Day of Atonement.” It was a day in which all the sins of the people from the past year were forgiven when the high priest sprinkled the blood of a sacrificial animal on the altar in the Temple of Jerusalem. In this way, the sanctuary would be cleansed, “purged of the defilements of the Israelites” (Leviticus 16:19). An even more ancient tradition tells of how Moses sprinkled some sacrificial blood over the altar and sprinkled the rest of the blood over the Israelites, as if linking their lives to God’s in a covenant of faithfulness and love (Exodus 24:5-8). This covenant was an unbreakable bond between them, a bond forged when the people were “clothed” with sacrificial blood.

In another tradition, there is a hymn in the Book of Isaiah, in which the prophet sings, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation, and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels” (Isaiah 61:10). Where the first tradition says we are clothed with the garments of a covenant with God, the second says we are clothed with a free gift of salvation and righteousness from the Lord.

The wonder is that both of these traditions—both of these hopes and dreams from our spiritual ancestors—find their complete fulfillment in Jesus. On the cross, he shed his own blood as a sacrifice for us. With that blood, he washed us clean of all sin. In that sacrifice, he made a new and everlasting covenant with us. He is the one who has clothed us in a robe of salvation. He is the one who has given us royal garments to wear, garments that speak of the dignity and privilege of becoming sons and daughters of God!

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we celebrate the fact that the one who came to us in swaddling clothes now covers us in royal robes of salvation. He who took on the garment of a human body made his very body the way back to God. He who was clothed in humanity now offers us his body and his blood as spiritual food and drink, forever bridging the gap between our holy and perfect God and us unclean sinners.

The Woman and the Garment. We all know the story about the woman who was bleeding for twelve years. She spent all her money on doctors, only to get worse and worse. But when she simply touched Jesus’ garment, she was healed in an instant (Mark 5:25-34). In one sense, we can say that this woman represents all of us. All of us were sick, bleeding to death from the effects of sin. We searched for healing from the best that the world could offer us, but found no cure. Then a new hope began to rise in our hearts. Maybe, just maybe, if we could touch Jesus’ garment, we thought, our sins could be washed away, and we could be healed. Then, as we reach out and touch him, we can tell in an instant that we have been set free!

Why do we need to be clothed in Christ? Because it is the only way we can be made right with God. All of our good will, all of our service to the poor—as good as it is—all of our attempts at healing apart from the Lord: It all falls short. To put it simply, we need Jesus. We need to stake our lives on his cross. He is the only one who can clothe us with the garment of salvation. He is the only one who can clothe us in a new covenant. He himself is the robe of righteousness, the garment of salvation, that we need to put on each and every day.

Putting On His Clothes. What does it mean to put on Jesus’ garment of salvation every day? First, we need to understand that we were clothed with Christ at our baptism. As St. Paul told the Galatians, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). In fact, it was the tradition in the early church that catechumens went into the waters of baptism naked and were given a white robe to cover themselves when they came out. They symbolically accepted the new clothing of Christ when they put on that white robe.

Even today, when a person is baptized, he or she is given a white outer garment, while the priest or deacon says, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity. With family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.”

But this clothing in Christ at baptism is a one-time act and cannot be repeated. So how is it that we are called to put on the garment of salvation every day afterward? Again, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians tells us. “You were called for freedom,” he writes. “But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love” (Galatians 5:13). Similarly, he told the Romans: “Sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires. And do not present the parts of your bodies to sin as weapons for wickedness, but present yourselves to God as raised from the dead to life” (Romans 6:12-13).

These verses tell us that the Holy Spirit lives in us—as in the “closet” of our hearts—through baptism. But at the same time we all have to reach into that closet, pick out our clothing, and put it on. There may be other clothes in that closet, and we can just as easily choose to wear them instead. But, as the prophet told us, these clothes amount to no more than “polluted rags.”

This theme of putting on the garment of salvation—or putting on the Lord Christ Jesus—is sounded over and over again in the New Testament. The Letter to the Ephesians, for instance, tells us: “Put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires . . . and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Ephesians 4:22-24). And in the Book of Revelation, Jesus exhorts the first believers: “Buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich, and white garments to put on so that your shameful nakedness may not be exposed” (Revelation 3:18).

A Gift and a Call. Brothers and sisters, this garment of salvation is both a free gift from God and a call to action that we face each day. Every day, God asks us to confess with our lips that Jesus is our Lord and to believe in our hearts that he is our risen Savior. Every day, he urges us to choose Christ, to clothe ourselves with the truths of the faith so that we will be protected from the sin in the world. But he knows we cannot make these choices by the virtue of our strength alone. That’s why he gave us the great gift of baptism—our cleansing from sin and clothing in salvation. That’s why his only Son shed his blood as a ransom from sin and the pledge of a new covenant.

Jesus really has given us everything we need to live a holy life. He now asks us to embrace this free gift and put on his garment of salvation each and every day.