It’s hard to deny that the standard of dress for Mass attendance is significantly lower than it was a few decades ago. I’m not talking about people who, due to work schedule or other external circumstances, need to attend Mass in other than their “Sunday Best”, but to the very large number of Catholics who could dress better but, for whatever reason, don’t. And now that the warm weather is here, it’s not simply a matter of people being poorly dressed, but also many dressing immodestly, some to the point where they create a near occasion of sin for their fellow congregants. I propose that we all undertake to bring back the concept of our “Sunday Best” for Mass, and encourage our fellow believers to do the same.
|Dressed for the Wedding Feast: not a t-shirt or pair of shower clogs in sight|
Some will say, “God doesn’t care what I’m wearing, as long as I’m there.” I respectfully disagree; consider the following passage from the Gospel of Matthew, (a similar one appears in Luke):
But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 22:11-13)
Now, some will object that this is not intended as a literal instruction on proper Mass attendance, but is a figurative description of what our interior disposition should be. That’s true, but we also believe that our internal disposition should be reflected externally: that’s the point of all the standing, kneeling, blessing ourselves with the Sign of the Cross, etc.; the word needs to become flesh. We recognize this in the secular world: what does it tell my wife if I don’t acknowledge her birthday? How many wives or husbands would be satisfied with “You know I love you, why should I bother with a card or flowers”? Consider also that the wedding banquet in the passage above stands for the Kingdom of God, which is similarly represented in Revelation (Rev. 19:6-9) as the “Wedding Feast of the Lamb”; we also apply this term to the Mass, as before Communion when the Celebrant quotes Revelation : “Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.” Heaven, Wedding Feast, Mass, it all goes together. Figurative or not, I wouldn’t dismiss the fate of the poorly-clad wedding guest lightly.
There are places in the Bible, of course, where we do receive explicit directions on liturgical dress, such as St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Here the Apostle says that Men should not cover their heads, but that a woman should veil their heads during worship, since her hair is “her glory” which was given to her “as a covering” (Corinthians 11:15); this passage was taken literally and followed in the Catholic Church from St. Paul’s time through the Second Vatican Council, and mostly still is at Masses in the Extraordinary Form. One hardly needs to imagine what St. Paul would say about women coming to Mass with legs bared up to mid-thigh, or other immodesties that I blush to mention. In any case, we can see from Sacred Scripture itself that how we dress for worship has always been important.
A more contemporary authority, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, published a very helpful document [here] in 2006 called “’Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper’: On Preparing to Receive Christ Worthily in the Eucharist” (note yet again the connection of the Mass to the Wedding Feast). This publication considers many aspects of the Mass, including a section called “How Can We Prepare To Receive Holy Communion More Worthily?” which begins by saying:
The Mass is not simply a private encounter between an individual and Jesus Christ. In a mystical manner, the whole Church is present in every celebration of the Mass, including the angels and the martyrs and saints of all ages.
In more direct language, the Mass is not just about me, or you, and we don’t get to make up our own rules. This section contains a brief section on “Appropriate Attire”:
We should also come to the sacred liturgy appropriately dressed. As Christians we should dress in a modest manner, wearing clothes that reflect our reverence for God and that manifest our respect for the dignity of the liturgy and for one another.
Notice the three standards by which we should judge our own dress: 1) “reverence for God” – how would we dress to meet the President, or even a prospective employer? Shouldn’t we dress at least as well to meet our Creator and the Lord of the Universe? 2) “respect for the dignity of the liturgy” – don’t we dress up for a Broadway show, or the opera? How then should we dress for the Miracle of the Eucharist? 3) “respect for one another” – wouldn’t we dress up for friend’s wedding, or other special occasion? And is it respectful to our fellow congregants to distract and even tempt them by dressing provocatively?
No doubt someone will point out that you can avoid the whole thing by attending Mass in the Extraordinary Form; that’s true up to a point, although I’ve seen the same problem creeping in there as well. The fact is that we live in a world that has lost a sense of boundaries, because we have lost sight of the idea that everything does not revolve around us and our desires. And so even many of us Catholics have forgotten St. Paul’s admonition:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)
Instead we not only conform ourselves, but try to conform even the Church to this world by making it a place where we dress and talk like we do anywhere else, listen to music that sounds just like the music outside (or at least like it sounded, in some circles, in the 1970’s), and where we can’t criticize the secular orthodoxies that are current at the moment. We have completely lost sight of that most important boundary, the dividing line between the sacred and the profane (used in its traditional sense, roughly synonymous with what we now mean by “secular”). “Sacred” and its Germanic equivalent “Holy” literally mean “separate” or “set apart”: set apart for God, and therefore separate from the ordinary things in our lives. Recognizing our need to express both internal and spiritual realities in external and physical ways, we were reminded that the interior of the Church was “Holy Ground” and set it apart by using a different language, singing a different kind of music, and wearing different clothes. Even inside the Church the altar rail was a sign to us of our separateness from God, and only those specially commissioned could enter the Sanctuary (as only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temple) to represent all of us to God.
Today we like to intellectualize everything, because by simply dismissing anything we can’t ourselves figure out we maintain the illusion that we are the masters of reality. But the intellect only touches the surface of our consciousness: to really understand reality on a deep level we need signs, symbols, and images, we need to experience it, and not simply understand it. What are we saying about the reality of the Mass, the significance of Christ present in the Eucharist, if we feel free to show up in shorts and shower clogs, or skimpy clothes that draw attention away from the Divine Presence and toward our own bodies?
So, what to do? I suspect that many people don't really know any better, and are just doing what they see everyone else doing. I propose that we try to lead by example, and emphasize that how we dress is not only a reflection of our devotion, but can actually be an expression of our devotion, a physical form of prayer. Perhaps if we make a point of talking, in a positive way, about reverent dress, and come up with a catchy slogan ("Offer The Lord Your Sunday Best"? "Bring Out Your Best Every Sunday"? Any suggestions out there?) we can start to see an improvement in our local parishes.
I firmly believe that when we take our worship more seriously we take our faith more seriously: lex orandi, lex credendi, "the law of praying is the law of believing" (how many times have I used that quote?). Whether it's the improved translation, better liturgical music, or a manner of dress that shows more respect for God, the liturgy, and our fellow-worshippers, anything that brings more reverence to the Mass will have a beneficial effect in other areas as well. I invite everyone to join me in a campaign to encourage attire worthy of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.