Monday, November 5, 2018

Why we should pay attention to our attire when we go to Church.

It has often been lamented that the term ‘Sunday best’ has become somewhat of an oxymoron amongst the current generation of Church-going folk.  Be they adults or youth, Sunday is seen as a day to dress down rather than dress up, whether or not one is observing this day as the Lord’s day by going to Church. In fact, the term ‘Sunday worst’ may be more of a reality.

I have on several occasions addressed this to congregants on a one-to-one basis, making sure that I speak with them in hushed tones and requesting that in future they come to Mass not wearing shorts and slippers.  I wouldn’t say that I give them a dressing down, though some may take offence that I did speak to them about this.  Perhaps the great problem is that many people fail to see the great need in effort on our part in the relationship that we have with God, and that God should be ok with our minimal efforts.

I once was given this response - that Sunday, and the weekend in general, is a time to relax and ‘chill’ because they had to be attired in a stuffy (read formal) way from Monday to Friday, which is the work week.  For many, dressing for work is something that may seen to be tedious and even a pain in the neck, but for most people, this cannot be compromised because of the prevailing office rules regarding what is deemed proper attire.  However, when the weekend comes, it’s ‘no holds barred’ for anything.  It is seen as a personal time, a private time, and me-time.  But if we understand that at Mass we are offering God our worship and adoration, it really is not “about me” at all.  It is about God.

Perhaps it is the ‘it’s about me and my comfort’ that is the prevailing narrative in the hearts and minds of the congregation that comes to Church.  It explains the way many turn up in Church dressed in shorts and a pair of rubber slippers in the way that they would turn up at a beach party.  

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wearing shorts and slippers if we are going to a beach party or to the market.  In fact, that would be totally appropriate and acceptable.  If this is our attire at Mass, it could reveal a great disconnect between what we are doing in Church (making the effort of giving God the adoration and worship that is his due) and how this is expressed in our dressing.

The following are the arguments for appropriate dressing in Church:

1.  The argument from “form aiding substance”.

As much as we may say that what matters inside our hearts (substance) is far more important than what we don on the outside (form), there is a certain truth that our form does influence our substance.  Knowing that we have taken great effort to dress up for an event that is special, like for a relative’s wedding dinner, gives us reason to be on our best behavior.  It may be a small point, but I do believe that this has its value, especially in Church.  No one who prays to God asks for only a bit of his love and his grace.  We have a desire to know that God wants to give us his best.  In Jesus he has given us his very best.  Knowing this ought to cause us to reciprocate in the same way, giving of our best as well, and this includes the best that we have in our wardrobes, or at least, not the most convenient, most casual or most comfortable. 

2.   The argument from venue.

When we go to Church, our primary purpose is to worship God in his house, and to love him.  This is God who is the creator of all, and Jesus reveals that he has given us his all.  Our response to this reality needs to be met with great enthusiasm and respect, and this is evident in how we turn up for worship.  Apart from not being tardy and how we behave, it is revealed in how we are attired.  If we were to be invited to the grounds of the Istana or the Royal Palace for an event, we wouldn’t dare show up in anything less than a carefully planned outfit befitting the occasion.  And this is only for a meeting with a mere mortal, who has no more supernatural power than anybody that you and I encounter each day.  

But when we come to God’s house in Church, we are not meeting any mere mortal.  We are coming before the King of Kings, and are receiving the one who gave us eternal life in Holy Communion.  It is only befitting God’s divinity that we pay attention to how we show up.  In our Catholic tradition, this is expressed by our reverent genuflections toward the Altar or Tabernacle before we enter our pews, the mindful head bows, and the care that we put in what we wear.  It influences greatly our heart and our minds when we are at prayer and worship.

3.   The argument from the cause of distraction.

Singapore is near the equator, causing it to have its hot and humid weather all year round.  I am not sure if this is why women often turn up at Mass wearing spaghetti strap tops and some even tube tops.  But these outfits are also the cause of many a roving eye and distracted mind of one’s fellow worshipper.  While I am sure that no one comes to Church with the purpose of ogling at another’s body, what one wears can end up being such fodder for the eye, diverting one’s attention away from where it ought to be.  Rather than anyone’s body, it is the Body of Christ that is the reason for our gather at Mass.

I was at Mass recently in a parish church in Kuala Lumpur, and within this community were a group of African Catholics.  These Catholics stood out in a stunning way not because of the colour of their skin, but by the astounding way that they turned up for worship.  The men were all wearing long sleeved shirts, with ties, and some were even in suits.  The women looked regal with their head wraps.  I am certain that the kind of respect that these African brothers and sisters had a positive effect on the locals in the community, causing them to want to be as effortful as well in the way they turn up for Mass.  This effect works both ways – if we dress sloppily and extremely casually, those around us will naturally follow suit.  But if we show great love and great effort, it can serve to raise the standard around us – and this includes most importantly, the standards of our love for God and for one another.

In this reflection, I hesitated to give clear guidelines on what one ought to wear.  This is because the ‘best’ in one’s wardrobe is really subjective. If one is a homeless person, and has only a pair of slippers and the shirt on his back as his only possession, that is his best and this will delight God.  It will be just as noticed by Jesus as the two small coins given by the poor widow into the treasury.  But if one has an extensive wardrobe, wouldn’t it then be appropriate that one be a bit more discerning?  Everyone knows in his or her conscience what would glorify God in the most appropriate way. Parents dressing up young children for Mass influence this in a great way.  

Taking note of the ‘arguments’ listed above, I believe that they should help to form the guidelines of how one turns up at Mass.  

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