Michael Williams asks, “Have you ever felt a fig leaf? It’s kind of like sandpaper.” So, Adam and Eve, in this familiar story, chose to clothe themselves with something that didn’t really work. Williams suggests that when this story was told around the fires at night, the community would have been laughing at the idea of being clothed with fig leaves. It may have worked to cover nakedness, but it didn’t really make it in the comfort realm.
It’s the first Biblical story about clothing. As the story of disobedience unfolds, God tells them that they will have to leave the garden. Then “the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.”
It’s amazing how present the idea of clothing is in the Bible. And, how involved God is in the “clothing” of God’s people. Here, in the very beginning, we have the story of God making garments of skin for the man and the woman.
I was fascinated by Lauren Winner’s reflections on this story. She said that when she was younger she assumed that when it said “the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and his wife” that it meant God gave them skin. They hadn’t needed skin in the garden. She said she didn’t know what they would have looked like before, but she thought this meant God gave them the skin they needed to survive outside of the garden. She was surprised when she heard other interpretations – that God provided them with the skins of other animals – replacing the fig leaves!
Winner’s interpretation isn’t totally bizarre. Many rabbis have had similar reflections. They look upon this “enfleshing” of the man and woman as the completion of the creation of human beings. They, in essence, became fully human when they were sent out of the garden. She quotes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner:
The expulsion was indeed the finishing touch to the creation of human beings…What Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden was…. supposed to happen. Indeed, it has happened in every generation since. Children disobey their parents and, in so doing, complete their own creation. Adam and eve are duped, not by the snake, but by God. They were lovingly tricked into committing the primal act of disobedience that alone could ensure their separation from God, the individuation, and their expulsion from [childhood’s] garden. Yet just because such is the way of the world does not mean there is no psychic damage…For our own good we have been tricked into leaving our parents’ home, into separating from God…The necessary price for becoming an autonomous adult is the unending pain of separation.
Wow! Isn’t that a different way of hearing this story? As I was looking at the idea of clothing and being clothed by God throughout the scriptures, I came across another passage that might add weight to this interpretation. Hear these words from one of Job’s laments. “You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews.”
Winner suggests that both hearings of this passage are helpful. The more traditional interpretation reminds us that as the Biblical story unfolds we will encounter again and again the God who expresses a “deep, abiding interest in working with and for human beings.” Winner says, “I find myself picturing…: God bent over, stitching fur garments for Adam and Eve. I imagine that God is sad while stitching, and I imagine God’s gift as one of utter tenderness: I know you have to leave, but here is one last thing I can do for you before you go.”
I thought of that wonderful Dolly Parton song, “Coat of many colors.” She sang of her mother making a winter coat from the rags that had been given to them. “Momma sewed the rags together, sewing every piece with love. Although we had no money I was rich as I could be in my coat of many colors that my momma made for me.”
Who has clothed you with something special, with a garment that was infused with care and love? That may be harder for us to answer in today’s world where clothes are so easily found – and easily or readily discarded. Most clothing is made by those who are so far removed from us – in foreign lands. How can we reclaim that image of God’s care for us in what we wear?
The book Practicing Our Faith has a chapter on Honoring the Body. The chapter looks at the ways in which our clothing is sometimes a distraction. It’s an issue that Winner acknowledges as well. Winner spoke of the class she taught in a women’s prison – with women seminarians present. They are divided by their clothing. Those incarcerated wear green uniforms. There is a head count during each class. One day, one of the seminarians had happened to wear a top with a similar color. It confused the officers. They weren’t looking at people. Only for bodies in a particular color.
We’re more accustomed to the other ways in which our clothing marks us. Oftentimes, the particular clothes we wear says something about our economic status. I worked at a church wear most of the young people wore expensive
clothing. One girl, the beloved adopted child of a couple with limited means, wore the simple cotton dresses her parents could afford. She was marked as unworthy – not only by the young people, but by some of the staff.
What does our clothing say about us? Some faith traditions present themselves as members of a particular group by the clothes that they wear. And, we know, that can invite distrust, anger, judgment – and even violence. Mark and I were at Animal Kingdom earlier this week. We saw a Muslim woman, completely covered. She was even wearing a cloth that covered her mouth. First, I couldn’t imagine how hot she was! Secondly, I had to recognize my own judgment of her situation. It was easy to assume that this had been forced upon her.
Yet, I’m not bothered by Mennonite or Amish women in their simple dresses and head coverings. I’m not bothered by nuns in habits (although you don’t see too many these days!) Some years ago, NPR had an interview with a young Muslim woman who spoke of her choice to wear the hajib – the head covering. For her, it was a faith driven decision. Her sister, equally as faithful, had chosen the opposite.
In Honoring the Body, Stephanie Paulsell wrote of the practice of adorning the body for worship. She lifted up a practice some families have developed to “dress for church.” Instead of having Sunday finery, children are encouraged to wear a piece of jewelry—maybe made by a friend – or an outfit that lifts that child’s sense of worth.
Winner suggests that the most important image of God clothing us is found in Galatians 3. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We are “clothed” with God’s self, clothed in God! Winner suggests imagining God as a warm winter coat. A handmade suit. A treasured sweater. God is as close as our very skin, wrapped lovingly around us.
It is an image original to Paul scholars suggest. “Putting on virtues” imagery was common. It is woven into the Biblical witness. Such imagery was used in much of the ancient world. But, this idea that we are clothed with God is different. It’s more intimate.
A nineteenth century Baptist minister, Alexander MacLaren, wrote, “It takes a lifetime to fathom Jesus; it takes a lifetime to appropriate Jesus, it takes a lifetime to be clothed with Jesus. And the question comes to each of us, have we ‘put off the [old man] with his deeds?’ Are we daily, as sure as we put on our clothes in the morning, putting on Christ the Lord?”
Paul’s words about having been clothed with Christ are followed by that powerful declaration, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Winner writes:
To understand Christ as clothing is to understand a certain holy gender-bending. I do not think it is a coincidence that Paul’s declaration that we, the baptized, have been clothed in Christ comes right before Paul’s equally famous insistence that ‘we are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Christ is the clothing that has the power to say no male and female. In fact, all three of the distinctions that Paul explicitly names as undone by Jesus – male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free – are distinctions that, at various points in history, have been created in part through clothing….Jesus is not the kind of
clothing that creates social divisions, but the kind of clothing that undoes them.
Winner asks how it is we “wear” Christ. Do we see that “clothing” as loving, empowering – calling forth the best of who we are? Is that clothing leading toward the breaking down of all the divisions that continue to plague our world?
It is natural that when we recognize God as the one who clothes us, God as our very clothes, we begin to understand that we have a responsibility to clothe others. And, maybe we begin to see that such a responsibility asks us to see those whom we are to clothe – to see their needs, to see who it is that they are.
When my daughter was very young – kindergarten or 1st grade – I bought a lovely top for her. I can still picture it. It was white and had brightly colored polka-dots all over it. It had an elasticized belt. It would have looked great with a solid color skirt or with blue jeans. It seemed a perfect top for a little girl who loved rainbows.
But she wouldn’t wear it. It hung in her closet. I don’t think she ever tried it on. We fought about it. And I lost! She would not bend. For some reason, it didn’t fit her personality. I finally gave it away. I hope some other little girl enjoyed it. I still think she would have looked cute in it! But, she wouldn’t have felt cute. For her, it was the wrong top. It didn’t let her be herself. (I guess she was doing what Rabbi Kushner wrote about: declaring her individuality over against her parent!)
There are some wonderful clothing ministries around us – ministries that go far beyond passing out clothes that are discarded because they are worn. People take gently worn professional clothing and help those looking for jobs dress appropriately for interviews. Or, there are the “prom” shops for young women who can’t afford to buy new dresses. Probably just as important, or more important than the clothes themselves is the care that is expressed by those who
seek to “clothe” those who have a need. They have “clothed themselves with Christ” as they have ministered to those whom the world frequently overlooks.
Winner says, “[It] is not just to participate in charitable good work. To do those things is to involve yourself in the choreography of divine action. It makes you a mimic of God, -- it MAKES YOU A MIMIC OF GOD -- and it shapes you more and more into God’s image.”
Dwell with this “clothing God” this week – the God who “clothed you with skin,” the God who wraps you in arms of love, and the God who has put Christ on you.