By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
For the philosophers among us, the question of why clothes both express and conceal some aspect of our body-soul unity would be an intriguing topic of secular conversation. From the theological point of view, garments are featured at some of the most crucial moments of salvation history narrated in the Bible. The feast of the Epiphany is the perfect time to ponder the symbolism of clothing beyond the happy contemplation of little baby Jesus wrapped in his “swaddling clothes.”
The first man and woman, according to the book of Genesis, “were naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:25). Immediately after their original sin, they recognize their nakedness, and feel the need to hide their shame with leaves, making primitive loincloths for themselves. Once the Lord God finishes the list of punishments for their transgression, “He made them for the man and his wife garments of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). Pretty straightforward on the narrative level: the garments are donned after the first sin.
BUT…both rabbinic Jewish scholars and Christian theologians in the Syriac tradition make a glorious hubbub about a word play in that seemingly innocuous verse. The Hebrew word for animal skin, ‘or, sounds exactly like the word for light, ’or. And so the super-creative interpretive juices of the rabbis and the Syrians get flowing in the following manner: this verse, for them, does not describe the dress of animal skins given by God after the fall, but rather the clothing of light which he had already bestowed upon the man and woman before the fall! That initial garment of glory had symbolized the couple’s perfect relationship with God and with each other. When they disobey the command not to eat of the forbidden fruit, they shed that garment of light, and their shame-inducing nakedness reveals to them that sin has stripped them of their glory.
Now, if that interpretation sounds a bit wild, rest assured that it is; and yet it accords well with an understanding of Christ’s incarnation as God putting on our coat of flesh to clothe humanity once more, but with a new robe of grace and glory. An anonymous poem, written centuries ago in Syriac, presents this thought beautifully: “Because the serpent had stolen the clothes / Of Adam, that fair image [of God], / The royal Son [Jesus] brought them back / To reclothe Adam in his adornment.” We put on this newly acquired robe of glory when we emerge from the baptismal bath as a new man or woman in Christ (see Galatians 3:27).
This garment of glory and grace with which Christ cloaks us ultimately becomes the symbol of our triumph over sin and death. In the book of Revelation, an explicit connection is made between the garden from which Adam and Eve were banished and the holy ones who have persevered in their witness to Christ, the Lamb of God: “Blessed are they who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city through its gate” (Revelation 22:14). These saints will have no shame when they stand before the Lord at judgment, for they will have purified their garments of any sinful stain, and their splendor will adorn the heavenly Jerusalem forever in praise of God.
Such a sweeping vision of salvation history seems a distant cry from the humble manger scene. Yet the Magi, journeying westward while guided by a perfect light in the sky, adore an unspeaking Word (Matthew 2:1-11), and the shepherds, hearing the first Gospel proclamation by the angelic host, hasten to find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes (Luke 2:8-19). Just as they were granted the grace to see the humble God in human flesh, so too may we be given that same promise of light, and put on the garment of glory which will adorn our soul in the Kingdom of Christ our Lord.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.